Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has recorded and performed extensively since the early 1990s. His most consistent output over the years has been in the trio format.
Mehldau’s musical personality forms a dichotomy. He is first and foremost an improviser and greatly cherishes the surprise and wonder that can occur from a spontaneous musical idea that is expressed directly, in real time. But he also has a deep fascination for the formal architecture of music, and it informs everything he plays.
In his most inspired playing, the actual structure of his musical thought serves as an expressive device. As he plays, he listens to how ideas unwind, and the order in which they reveal themselves. Each tune has a strongly felt narrative arch, whether it expresses itself in a beginning, an end or something left intentionally open-ended. The two sides of Mehldau’s personality — the improviser and the formalist — play off each other, and the effect is often something like controlled chaos.
Mehldau has performed around the world at a steady pace since the mid-1990s, with his trio and as a solo pianist. His performances convey a wide range of expression. There is often an intellectual rigor to the continuous process of abstraction that may take place on a given tune, and a certain density of information. That could be followed by a stripped-down, emotionally direct ballad. Mehldau favors juxtaposing extremes. He has attracted a sizable following over the years, one that has grown to expect a singular, intense experience in his performance.
In addition to his trio and solo projects, Mehldau has worked with many great jazz musicians, including a gig with saxophonist Joshua Redman’s band for two years; recordings and concerts with Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden and Lee Konitz, and recording as a sideman with Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, John Scofield and Charles Lloyd. For more than a decade, he has collaborated with several musicians and peers whom he respects greatly, including the guitarists Peter Bernstein and Kurt Rosenwinkel and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner.
Mehldau also has played on many recordings outside the jazz idiom, such as Willie Nelson’s "Teatro" and singer-songwriter Joe Henry’s "Scar." His music has appeared in several movies, including Stanley Kubrick’s "Eyes Wide Shut" and Wim Wenders' "Million Dollar Hotel." He also composed an original soundtrack for the French film "Ma Femme Est Une Actrice."
Mehldau composed two works commissioned by Carnegie Hall for voice and piano, The Blue Estuaries and The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, which were performed in 2005 with the acclaimed classical soprano Renee Fleming. These songs were recorded with Fleming and released in 2006 on the "Love Sublime" record; simultaneously, Nonesuch Records released an album of Mehldau’s jazz compositions for trio titled "House on Hill." A 2008 Carnegie Hall commission for a cycle of seven love songs for Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter was premiered in 2010. "Love Songs," a double album that paired the newly commissioned song cycle, with a selection of French, American, English and Swedish songs that Mehldau and von Otter performed together, was released in late 2010 (on the Naïve label) to unanimous praise.
In 2013, Mehldau premiered and performed Variations on a Melancholy Theme, a large format orchestral piece that was performed with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Britten Sinfonia. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall, the Royal Conservatory of Music, the National Concert Hall and Wigmore Hall with the support of Andre Hoffmann (president of the Foundation Hoffmann). The work consists of a theme and 11 variations, plus a cadenza and postlude. In June, Nonesuch Records released a recording of Variations on a Melancholy Theme, with Mehldau and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Speaking to the combination of classical form with jazz harmonies in the work’s musical language, Mehldau wrote, “I imagine it as if Brahms woke up one day and had the blues.”
In 2019, Mehldau premiered his song cycle, The Folly of Desire, with tenor Ian Bostridge. The work was commissioned by Elbphilharmonie Hamburg, Wigmore Hall, Stanford Live at Stanford University and Carnegie Hall.
Mehldau was appointed as curator of an annual four-concert jazz series at London's Wigmore Hall during its 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, with Mehldau appearing in at least two of the four annual concerts. In 2010, Carnegie Hall announced the 2010-11 season-long residency by Mehldau as holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall — the first jazz artist to hold this position since it was established in 1995. Previous recipients include Louis Andriessen (2009-2010), Elliott Carter (2008-2009) and John Adams (2003-2007).