01 March 2024

I’ve just finished reading Brad Mehldau’s book Formation: Building a Personal Canon. I hadn’t planned to read it but my friend Thomas recommended me to do so. I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some memories here.

At the end of 2001, aged 16, I was in high school when I discovered the music of Brad Mehldau. It was Mrs Peyredieu du Charlat, the head of the school library at the Lycée Emile Loubet in Valence, a jazz fan, who recommended I listen to this pianist. At the time I’d been playing blues, boogie-woogie and ragtime for several years, and the pianists I was listening to were rather old-school. When I discovered this pianist, I jumped forward a few decades, and skipped an entire period of jazz that I would study a few years later. But there was a link: it was the blues, which was a clear influence in Mehldau’s music. So I immersed myself in his music in an intense way, going to the media library to get all his albums, which I encoded in my iPod and listened to every day on the bus to school. I’d play them over and over again, knowing all the tunes and solos by heart. I was trying to capture the essence of this new, modern way of playing the piano and playing with a trio. I recorded a TV jazz program (Jazz 6) on a VHS tape that broadcast, of course late in the night, his trio concert at the Jazz à Vienne festival the previous summer. Thanks to the video I was able to discover his physical involvement with the instrument, and as with other pianists I’d listened to, it was interesting to be able to make the link between a musician’s sound and the way he produces sound with his body. Sound has always seemed to me to be something inseparable from the rest of a musician’s musical vocabulary. Transcribing a solo, the phrasing, the time, the rhythmic placement, fine, but then reproducing the sound too. Digging Mehldau’s music (and jazz in general) was kind of a lonely hobby at school, but I finally found some interested buddies during recess and I could have nice talks with Florian Cellard, Maël Dieudonné and Joachim Bonifay-Sorin. At that time I took piano lessons at the Jazz Action Valence school, and there I was glad I could also share my findings and listenings with a few bandmates and my teachers, Pascal Faure, Joachim Expert and then Luc Plouton. I remember Joachim helping me with ear training and transcribing Mehldau’s tune Ron’s Place with the right chords, or Luc jamming with me on some other tunes. I also played London Blues in a duo with schoolmate and drummer Florian Cellard for a music exam for my high school diploma. Then around 18 years old I started playing with my first trio with François Perdriau on the bass and Stéphane Pardon on the drums, and we used to work a lot on odd meters based on some of Mehldau’s pieces or arrangements from the jazz repertoire. Alone Together played in 7/8 was our basis, but we often played with more complex meters, like 13/8 until 31/8, thanks to some crazy basslines from François.

In the summer of 2002, Mehldau was on the bill at Crest Jazz Festival close to our home in the south of France, I couldn’t miss it. And by chance my parents knew a festival volunteer, Claude, who agreed to let me come with her to pick up the trio at their hotel in Valence. I’d been listening to their music on repeat for a year, and I was really excited to meet my favorite band. In the hotel lobby, I met drummer Jorge Rossy, and we chatted for a while about piano, classical music, their upcoming concert in Marciac, steel drums and Othello Molineaux (at that time I played in a small band at the jazz school and Jean Tissot was playing the steel drums). He was always asking me questions, and I was happy that he was so interested in a young teenage pianist, who also didn’t speak English very well. Meanwhile, bassist Larry Grenadier was reading his newspaper. We had to wait half an hour before Mehldau joined us in the hall. He greeted us, and I remember our handshake; I found his hand very supple, and I thought to myself that it could help to be so relaxed to play the piano. He made a few shadow boxing moves towards Jorge. We were all ready to leave, but Larry Grenadier had disappeared. Jorge went to look for him in the hotel toilets, but to no avail. Larry had already left and was waiting for us in the parking lot. We all set off together in the same car towards the festival. I was happy to spend that half-hour close to my idols.

I was then able to attend the soundcheck. It didn’t last long, but I remember Mehldau warming up his fingers for a while, first with his left hand, before adding the other one, then Larry joining him in the middle, and finally Jorge when he’d finished setting up his drums. They played together for a while. I was amazed to hear them adapt so easily to each other, not knowing whether this moment of playing was based on an existing piece or a total improvisation. Shortly after they had finished, Sylvain, a classmate from high school who was one of the volunteers, came to see me. He asked me what I was doing here and which artist I had come to listen to. I told him about my afternoon, and about this musician I admired. He replied that he’d just stolen a cigarette from him, without knowing who he was. It was a Camel.

After an afternoon like that, the concert almost didn’t matter. My friends Bruno and Paul-Ugo joined me in the front row. From memory, the trio played the entire repertoire of their Anything Goes album. I remember one particular moment. There was a piece where Larry Grenadier had the score in front of him and looked at it from time to time. The concert was outdoors, and as is often the case in this region, it was windy. At one point, the score fell, and when Larry raised his head to see that the sheet was no longer in front of him, he stopped for a few seconds to pick it up. Shortly afterwards, the same thing happened, but this time the sheet fell under the piano, too far away to be picked up. Again, Larry looked up, and this time realized the problem. Mehldau quickly heard that something was wrong, and tried to play the bass on the piano to set Larry straight, but it wasn’t enough. The song was cut short and they quickly stopped. No matter, the audience applauded without necessarily understanding what had happened.

Mehldau’s autobiographical book traces his life and career up to the end of the 90s. In this formation in which he elaborates especially on his teenage years, some things resonated more than others, and I was reminded of those moments, those important encounters, and the time I had spent as a youngster listening to him and passionately working on the piano. It was my gateway to contemporary jazz, and certainly a part of my Bildung.

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