You know what would make a great contest?

The Brad Mehldau Cover Challenge. Music students and/or music lovers would write a brief essay suggesting and justifying a list of 10 pop songs for Brad Mehldau to cover. Four basic rules would apply:

  1. The songs would have to be worthy of reinvention and should inspire something more from Mehldau than the novelty of a familiar melody in a different style
  2. The songs would have to suit the musicality of jazz piano (that would probably rule out most hip-hop and some electronic)
  3. The songs would have to be “popular music” (or music recognizable to at least one-quarter of the American population)
  4. The songs cannot have already been covered extensively by other artists (Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” comes to mind…Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, and Rihanna’s “Umbrella” are more poppy examples of songs that have been covered to death)

Aside from those criteria, the sky would be the limit. Prior to the submission of these essays, Brad Mehldau himself would choose the winner and create an entire album and name it in honor of that person. It would be the ultimate jazz-cover mixtape. As for my own cover choices, I haven’t fleshed out a complete album. Here’s a partial list:

  • Say It Ain’t So, Weezer
  • Maps, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
  • Diamonds and Pearls, Prince
  • A Tear for Eddie, Ween (I know…I’m already breaking rule three)
  • Here You Come Again, Dolly Parton
  • Imitation of Life, R.E.M.
  • God Only Knows, The Beach Boys (now I’m breaking rule four)
  • If I Had a Boat, Lyle Lovett

I discovered Mehldau several years ago. It was a cover of Radiohead’s Paranoid Android that introduced me to his intensity (check it out if you don’t believe me), dexterity (he can play different melodies with each hand), and overall genius. The Brad Mehldau Trio released Brad Mehldau Trio Live (Nonesuch Records) a few months ago, an album recorded at the Village Vanguard in New York in the fall of last year. Live is Mehldau’s fourth album recorded there. It’s so good that I’ve dropped other music I’ve purchased recently and started going back through Mehldau’s earlier live recordings.

Brad Mehldau Trio Live

Of course, Mehldau and his current trio, which includes bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, are much, much more than a cover band. They also play Mehldau’s original music and an equal percentage of their live sets is devoted to classic jazz standards.

When I read that Mehldau’s group recently covered Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun on their lastest live recording, I had to pick it up. Ironically, Black Hole Sun is the only throw-away track on the two-disc set; the song is good for a round of “name that tune” with your friends, but a bit tedious at more than 23 minutes total. Now that I have my one negative comment out of the way, I can gush uninhibited about the rest of the album.

The album opens with its other pop cover, Oasis’ Wonderwall. As with any successful cover, it’s what Mehldau’s trio subtracts and adds to their version that really makes the song wonderful. The Mehldau trio’s rendition is void of the Gallagher delivery and attitude that annoyed me so much. The trio’s enhancements include a bossa nova-like rhythm, staccato and stride piano interpretation of the song’s lyrical notes (as opposed to Noel’s nasaly moans), and a bluesy-sounding, hard-driving Mehldau solo. Throughout his wandering improvisation, one of Mehldau’s hands remains true to the song’s melodic theme while the other hand explores the rest of the keyboard.

The trio’s chemistry is excellent throughout the album, but certain instances, where they nail typical jazz transitions (from a solo to the song’s head, from one solo to another solo), are remarkable and even spine-chilling. Secret Beach (a Mehldau original) really stands out to me.  B-Flat Waltz, Buddha Realm (I wish my name had a cool anagram) and John Coltrane’s Countdown are other highlights. As the band leader, Mehldau and his solos loom large over most of the tracks; he covers a wide spectrum of tempos and styles. Grenadier and Ballard also shine on the rare occasions when they get the spotlight.

More importantly, all three musicians excel at conversational improvisation, whether call-and-response or a less formal kind of interplay. I’ve found that whenever I listen to any of it, I continually have to remind myself that the performance is live. Oh, and considering our weakened American economy, I have to point out that you can’t find a much better value; the two-disc set, with two and a half hours of music, has the same price point as a single album.

Playing and improvising popular music written by someone else is inherent to jazz. When a pop song is accommodated by an artist in a different genre, for a different audience, the result can be a powerful hook that draws listeners in. Some of Mehldau’s pop covers are so good, they could legitimately replace other, more dated standards.

The Mehldau contest may be my own personal fantasy, but I share my appreciation for Mehldau’s recordings with many different types of jazz fans. So, come for the familiar and stay for the new and fantastic.