Titles are a funny thing for me. They are often the last element of a tune to arrive, and get written down almost as an afterthought. Sometimes I get lucky and think of something that matches up with the mood of the song, or, if the song has a specific musical/philosophical idea behind it, I get even luckier and come up with a few words that point to that idea without sounding too pretentious.
Pretentiousness is often what I’m trying to avoid with a title. For instance, a tune might be wrapped up in some kind of epiphany I had while reading a particular book that inspired me to think about the relationship between cyclical form in literature and music…but do I really want a title like, “Crosscurrents: Cyclical Gestures in Joyce’s Ulysses and Beethoven’s Opus 131”? Maybe something lighter: “When Ludwig Met James.” No…sounds twee, doesn’t do justice to the heft of the idea. Make it more succinct: “Cycles,” period. Nah – that doesn’t sound like anything. Could be talking about bikes. What then? This sort of inner dialog happens often when I’m trying to think of a title, and it takes up more time than I’d like.
I’ve always been jealous of the classical composers of yore and their opus numbers – just assign a number when it’s worth it. There are 32 Piano Sonatas from Beethoven, 9 Symphonies, and 16 String Quartets, not including the Great Fugue. We know a piece by its opus, and sometimes there is a group of them under that opus number. This tells us something about their chronology, and about the intent of the composer. Beethoven’s first three Piano Sonatas, for example, arrive compactly as Op. 2, Numbers 1, 2 and 3. When we see that low opus number, it reminds us that Beethoven was making a beginning of sorts, but the mere fact that he chose to designate those three sonatas with an opus also meant that he was implicitly saying: “These are the ones. I hold these worthy.” Maybe he was addressing the Viennese public; maybe he was addressing Haydn and other predecessors. I always feel like he’s addressing me, though, when I engage with that music – it feels like, “Look out, here I come.”
Opus numbers do not tell the whole story and are not always even accurate. For instance, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major, opus 19, was largely written before the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, opus 15. Nevertheless, for me, Piano Sonata No. 1 in F minor, opus 2, is a great title – it actually tells me a bit about Beethoven, or I like to think it does. It’s bemusing that a generic title like that – Fauré, Schumann, or Brahms all have Opus 2 pieces as well, after all – can seem in some ways more revealing than whatever title I come up with.
Forgoing titles in the jazz setting might come off to many as more pretentious than even the stuffiest or wonkiest title. Imagine a young jazz musician coming along and resurrecting the opus numbers for his or her debut record – the record would simply be called Opus 1, and the individual tunes would be “Number 1,” “Number 2,” etc. Why not? I’d be okay with it. Jazz is its own beast, though, and I suppose it would be silly to use such a dated form of nomenclature from another genre of music.
I’m not the only one who has problems thinking of titles, and I’ve heard about a couple of approaches for finding ones from other musicians. One guy I know – a big influence on me and much revered jazz musician a bit older than myself – told me that he thinks of titles independently of writing tunes and writes them down wherever he is, so he always has a list to choose from whenever he has a tune finished. When he told me that, I thought it was funny and almost unintentionally cruel, because a person who is deeply connected with one of his tunes might have a whole story to go with a title that he thought of while sitting on the subway. Not really, though, because what you don’t know won’t hurt you – nobody has to know that your title is in a way arbitrary.
This approach reminds me of something else a friend of mine revealed to me that surprised me and left me disillusioned for a moment. He composes for soundtracks, and I asked him once how film composers work on such a tight schedule, especially when the director comes in at the eleventh hour and says, “I don’t like any of this music; write me something completely new for this whole scene – by tomorrow!” In an instant a whole richly scored orchestral passage that cost blood, sweat, and tears gets sent to oblivion. His answer was simple: Most film composers have a fair amount of stock music that they’ve written ahead of time that falls into very wide categories. If one thing doesn’t work, they are ready with another piece of music; they already wrote it, maybe years ago. Again, it seemed cruel to me – my favorite music that seems to match up so perfectly in a love scene might have originally been intended for a movie about whales. But then again, it doesn’t really matter, right? I still enjoyed it.
It’s a bit like that with titles maybe – if it works, it works. There’s a disconnect – or maybe there never was a connect – between the meaning of the music that the composer intended to convey, and the meaning that the listener gives. Perhaps that points to a broader, much covered topic about the abstract nature of music, and how assigning meaning to music with language is fraught with arbitrariness because that meaning is so subjective.
But even when the language is there, it still doesn’t matter. I am in love with a fair amount of Brazilian pop music without knowing what they are saying a lot of the time. And sometimes when I find out the meaning of the songs it’s even disappointing. That’s happened with a few Chico Buarque songs – I figured it was a love song and it turned out to be something more political. Well, maybe the best political songs are also great love songs.
Some of the first songs that got under my skin were rock songs from the ’70s that I heard on my first transistor radio. The Eagles had a huge hit in 1977 called “Bike in the Fast Lane” – or that’s how I heard it at least. For at least six months I had a whole story in my head about that. When we went on car trips on the interstate freeway, I would play the song in my head, look into the fast lane, and picture myself there on my Schwinn star-spangled bike with the banana seat, whizzing past all the cars. When I finally learned that it was actually called “Life in the Fast Lane,” I was pretty bummed out and didn’t want to hear the song for a while.
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Ode is a collection of originals that I wrote specifically for my trio with Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard. I feel that what they bring to the music in the performance here is inseparable from the tunes themselves. It was music I wrote to play with them specifically. Most of the time I have a rough idea of a direction one of my tunes will take, and some of that may be on the page. Often, though, I am not very sure about how the tune should unfold as far as playing it together. There are lots of questions I don’t have an answer to the very first time we look at it together: How literal or not literal should the rhythmic delineation be? How concrete or abstract should the harmonic movement be stated throughout the improvisation? Is it a tune that will stay close to the feeling of the opening thematic statement, will it traverse all over the place as we improvise together, or is it something in between? What kind of texture should be on the drums as a starting point: something “wetter” and cymbal-driven, or something dryer, perhaps with Jeff using mallets, hands, or a mixture of both, with the snares off? What amount of activity do we want from the bass: constant movement that propels the whole band forward; very little movement, thinking and playing more sporadically; or some mixture of both at different times? What about register on the bass: Where will a melody I wrote for him speak the best in the context of everything? I will have ideas about these things ahead of time, but the choice is made collectively, or to be more specific: The particular way in which Larry and Jeff approach something, in praxis, is what will win all of us over.
That way changes as we go along with a tune, so I like to let the tune develop into something before we record it. At a certain point, the tune feels “ripe” – it feels exciting and dynamic; it feels that we are all expressing ourselves without too much impediment; it feels like we have internalized the structure, harmony, etc. of the tune to a point where we are not in our heads too much. Most importantly, it has wound up turning into something that I could not have imagined when I wrote the tune, and the part that I couldn’t have imagined is what Jeff and Larry made. Having a band and playing jazz means different things to different people, but that’s what it is for me – I’ve seen some really cool bands where the leader is strict and tells the other players pretty specifically how he or she wants it to be, even in the improvisation. I try to stay away from that rigidity if I can, though, and perhaps it’s most challenging on your own tunes, because you may carry more specific ideas that you’re wedded to, about what you wrote and how it should be heard. Ideally for me it’s democratic, veering towards anarchic, and being the leader means mostly setting the agenda – bringing in the material – and, yes, having a kind of “veto” power: If I resolutely feel something isn’t working I will strike it down unilaterally, so to speak. I’m wary of that, though, because it might be cutting off a shoot before something has time to blossom, just because there is an initial awkwardness or unfamiliarity.
Ode may represent the closest I’ve come yet with tunes I’ve written for my trio in terms of not falling into the title trap I discussed above. As I went along writing these tunes, I kept on finding that, to the extent that they were about anything, they were about something else than all the buzzing between my own ears – or better said, about someone else: Most of them are tributes to others, and I began to think of them as odes to the extent that the odes call to mind poems that might be sung; in our case here it’s the singing only without all those pesky words. Touching on several of them quickly:
“M.B. (for Michael Brecker)” is as it says: It was written about six months after he passed away, as I was reflecting on how he affected me as a musician from an early age, right up until the time I was blessed to play with him near the end of his life. It might not be obvious, but his spirit is in the harmony of the tune, the contours of the melody, and the relatively high heat of the performance.
“Ode” is the “meta” tune – an ode to odes.
“Dream Sketch” is the lone solipsist of the bunch. It’s an ode to one of my own dreams, or, more specifically: I dreamt the tune and woke up and immediately wrote it down. I have tried with various degrees of success to write down stuff I dream and of course most of the time it’s lost or mangled; sometimes I grab an idea that will then lead to something that I flesh out in full consciousness. In this case, I got down on paper more or less what I dreamt when I awoke from an afternoon nap, which may have to do with the fact that the theme of the tune is quite simple and short and doesn’t develop much. That had never happened before, and it was a happy rest of the afternoon.
“Twiggy” is an ode to the joy I’ve experienced with my wife, Fleurine. Twiggy – the model from the ’60s? It’s a nickname for her I can’t take credit for, alas; it was given to her years ago by the great bassist Christian McBride when they played together – Fleurine is a singer. Christian is one of those guys who will find a nickname for someone that sticks and makes you laugh. When I met her and she shared it with me, I bogarted it from Christian and continued to use it.
“Kurt Vibe” is for the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. He’s been a big inspiration to me over the years, listening to his bands, his records, and getting to play with him. As I wrote this one, I thought of Kurt’s writing, and also imagined him playing the progressively denser chords on the guitar, with that dark, enveloping sound he has.
“Stan the Man” is a quick affair and features Jeff soloing. “Stan” and “Bob” are two alter-ego characters that Jeff and I step into on the road to pass the time. Stan and Bob play golf, wear Hawaiian shirts, drink martinis, and say specious things about jazz like, “That Yardbird could really blow the tenor sax!”
“Eulogy for George Hanson” is an ode to the character played by Jack Nicholson in the 1969 movie Easy Rider. George has been brutally murdered by rednecks during the night. His friends Wyatt and Bill carry on, but the movie becomes more solemn and strange after that and never recovers its lightness – a metaphor for the end of the ’60s. The mystical, sacred mood of the tune and the free improvised approach was inspired after seeing the movie again.
“Aquaman” is an ode to my favorite character from the Saturday morning cartoon I watched as a kid in the 1970s, Super Friends. All of the superheroes would meet in the Hall of Justice at the beginning of the show – Batman and Robin, the Wonder Twins, Wonder Woman and of course Superman were all great, but I dug Aquaman because he kept a lower profile and could talk to dolphins.
“Days of Dilbert Delaney” is an ode to my son, Damien, and the relatively simple tune conveys the joy and wonder I felt when he came into our lives and I began to know him.
Again, these tunes really came alive when Larry and Jeff put their vibe on them, and I’m glad that I’ve been able to make music with them for a few years now. That’s the music that’s presented here, and finally, I thank you the listener, with gratitude, for joining us.
– Brad Mehldau, January 2012