ACCLAIMED jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who has become, probably, the most celebrated jazz instrumentalist of his generation, was in town this weekend, performing at Disney Hall. (Quite a good concert - Chris Barton's review here -- with both a chamber orchestra and a percussion-heavy combo, though I think he's best in a club in a trio format.)
He made a brief mention, in between songs, to his years in LA, and how much of his last record, Highway Rider, was inspired by driving around California. He also mentioned how New Yorkers don't "get" LA's car culture.
It all made me think back to the rainy evening, in 1998, in which I had a dinner interview with Mehldau during his time living here. (This was for the now defunct New Times LA.) We met at the Bourgeois Pig coffee shop -- he was living nearby, on Argyle, I think -- and I remember seeing him in the doorway with the hood of what I think was a yellow coat pulled over his head. He was more comfortable and easy to get along with than I expected from his brooding stage presence and recent drug history.
LA, he told me over dinner next door, at La Poubelle, had thrown him in with musicians with a wider range of interests than what he'd found in New York. We talked about Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, of course, but also Stereolab and the scene at Largo, where he had fallen under the spell of Jon Brion, who would eventually produce several of his records. (Including one called "Largo.")
"It keeps me away from the trap of New York," he said of musical life here. "All these guys studying bebop records. What's great about jazz for me is that it's always had a sacrilegious attitude toward taking and borrowing -- it's got Tin Pan Alley melodies, classical music, African rhythms. So I get a little antsy about any talk about 'jazz purists.' "
(Of course, it didn't help than it New York he was drinking too much. "But it was the heroin that really took me down."
When we talked about Bill Evans, by the way, Mehldau said he was more inspired by "the interaction that was going on in the rhythm section" than Evans' often twilit playing.)
Mehldau has been back in New York for some years now, and while LA may have been crucial for the blossoming of his eclecticism, he's joined a very long list of West Coast jazzers -- Ornette, Mingus --who've had to take off for New York to gain a larger audience.
I can say that if I'd been told, after that dinner, that Mehldau would become the biggest 40ish jazz artist and that Joshua Redman would be playing as an (inspired) sideman in his band, I'd have not believed it.