SoTW 299: Brad Mehldau, ‘Junk’

Brad Mehldau, ‘Junk’ French Radio Bootleg, 2004 

I love this particular performance of Paul’s ‘Junk’.
Because I love Brad Mehldau, especially solo.
Because ‘Junk’ is my favorite McCartney composition.
Because it’s beautiful music.
And because no one else knows it.

But now you, too, can listen to it while I explain how it’s connected to paranormality. Or you can read my shpiel and then go concentrate properly on Brad Mehldau playing ‘Junk’ without distraction. Or (probably the best choice) you can just put on the music and go do something useful while you listen.

So one day I’m on the highway, listening to Brad playing Paul’s ‘Junk’ from a 2004 bootleg from a French radio studio, a long-time favorite of mine, and I’m thinking, about ‘In My Life’, one of John’s most moving songs, regrettably mistreated by The Beatles pumping up the speed and sound. (SoTW 053, Judy Collins, ‘In My Life’.)

Junk

And I’m thinking to myself, boy, Brad could dig really deeply into that. So I figure I should tell him. That very night I sat down to write Brad a letter, telling him he should record ‘In My Life.’

“Heck,” I wrote, “you should do a whole solo album of Beatles.”

You see, I listen to Brad a lot. (I am aware on some level that he doesn’t listen to me.) I know that in the past he’s played McCartney not infrequently, so I thought there’s a good chance he’d like the idea. All he needs is a little nudge from me, right?

McCartney not infrequently, so I thought there’s a good chance he’d like the idea. All he needs is a little nudge from me, right?

So I found his agent’s email and wrote a really nice letter. And just before clicking Send, I said, “Jeff, are you sure he’s never recorded it? and you’re remembering it subliminally?”

“No, I’m not sure at all,” I answered, and went to check. Know what I found?

CAUTION: CONSCIOUSNESS-ALTERING CONTENT:

I found that just months earlier, under my radar, Brad Mehldau had posted a video of an entire solo concert of Beatles and Beatlesish music.

Without asking me. Without even telling me.

Now, if that isn’t telepathetic, I don’t know what is. It’s almost enough to make me change my view regarding the boundary between the normal and the paranormal.

I’m a skeptic by proclivity. If it doesn’t cohere with the evidence of my natural senses, I ain’t buying.

One exception. I once witnessed a guy bend a spoon with his mind. He held it with 2 fingers at the very tip, stared at it, and caused it to bend. I was sitting right across from him. It was a long time ago, but you don’t forget something like that.

Junk

Recently I was having a serious conversation with a serious friend, a spiritual scientist. (A scientist who is spiritual, not a scientist of the spirit.) He told me three stories from his life that defied pedestrian logic. How many paranormal experiences have you had? (UFOs don’t count.) Am I lagging behind everyone?

At least this one time I obviously manipulated Brad’s brainwaves with mine, the result being a video of no less than 14 (mostly McCartney) songs in 75 minutes, Brad Plays Beatles solo on a Steinway concert grand, fine sound and video. I should be thrilled, right?

  1. 00:00 I Am the Walrus (Lennon & McCartney) prickly
  2. 04:42 Your Mother Should Know (Lennon & McCartney) florid
  3. 07:00 I Saw Her Standing There (Lennon & McCartney)
  4. 11:15 For No One (Lennon & McCartney)
  5. 13:50 Baby’s in Black (Lennon & McCartney)
  6. 22:40 She Said She Said (Lennon & McCartney)
  7. 25:48 Here There and Everywhere (Lennon & McCartney) breathtaking
  8. 29:55 If I Needed Someone (George Harrison) muscular
  9. 34:27 Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (Lennon & McCartney) dour and wry
  10. 41:29 Golden Slumbers (Lennon & McCartney)
  11. 52:48 Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul McCartney)
  12. 56:51 A Rose for Emily (The Zombies)
  13. 01:00:28 God Only Knows (Brian Wilson & Tony Ashe)
  14. 01:05:26 Life on Mars (David Bowie)

Well, I am. It’s great, but it’s not his best. In the “Brad Mehldau Plays The Beatles (and more)” video, he ‘just’ plays the songs. Beautifully. It is the reason I resorted paranormalcy, to hear exactly this. But it’s not as good as when he stretches out and goes exploring.

I’ve found that the longer Brad plays a Paulsong, the more I enjoy it. That’s what’s non-great about this program. These are all songs Brad never or rarely played, and he seems to me to be showcasing them rather than diving for pearls.

Junk

Allow me to demonstrate. ‘For No One’, one of Paul’s most memorable pianistic compositions, clocks in at 2:30 here. A great 2:30, don’t get me wrong, I love Brad Mehldau’s Beatles showcase. If you’ve read this far, you probably will, too. It’s followed by ‘Baby’s in Black’, one of the very few Beatles songs I almost dislike. Brad kneads it for 9 minutes, and it’s a highlight of the program.

Probably the showpiece of the showcase is McCartney’s heartrending ‘Golden Slumbers’, almost 11 minutes long.  That ‘Once there was a way’ intro invokes in every one of us a very special wistfulness, a suadade (see SoTW 075) every single time we hear it. I love how in the middle of his muscular, edgy improvisation Brad stops to play that opening refrain again, playing Paul almost note for note, embracing the original with audible emotion.   

But if you want the really good stuff—the under the counter, ‘Tell ‘em Fatso sent you’ gems—they’re sprinkled around Brad’s albums and YouTube like Lucy’s diamonds. Want a hot tip? The longer the better.

Check out how Brad playfully explores all the nooks and crannies of “Martha, My Dear” in this 4:35 version, and then how he gleefully dissembles it in this angles and elbows 6:55 treatment. It sounds like Picasso’s portrait of an Old English Sheepdog. I love ‘em both, prefer the latter. You?

In 2015’s “10 Years Solo” is a go-to of mine, a wonderful, wonderful self-curated 4-CD collection with 4 Beatlish cuts. ‘Blackbird’ would be a great entry point for all you I Don’t Like Jazzers out there. It’s just so much fun, and shows what a jazz expedition can do that a constricted 2:15 pop song can’t.

Junk

If you want a ‘pretty’ version of ‘God Only Knows’, go to the 5:00 one in the video. The 16:45 ‘God Only Knows’ on “10 Years Solo” is an expansive canvas for a large statement, a dark, abstraction that I think is taking the title of this pop song literally. Mehldau’s 2019 genre-defying “Finding Gabriel” reflects on “scripture and the search for God through music inspired by prog rock.”

For me the centerpiece of “10 Years Solo” is his 15:58 ‘And I Love Her’, which he takes to a very ominous place. Give it a good listen, it just might shake you up.

There’s a very respectable ‘Junk’ here as well, as fetching as always, 5:06, two choruses, an improvised chorus, another chorus and applause, just like most of the shorter versions. For comparison, here’s a 5:45 one where he gets just a little weird, mostly sticking close to that oh-so-lovely composition.

Junk

And here’s our Song of The Week, the glorious 7:23 ‘Junk’ bootleg from French radio. (Charlie Mingus is reputed to have said “If there’s anything better than junk in the universe, God is keeping it for Himself.” Brad Mehldau has struggled with addiction.) It’s whimsical, alluring, lyrical and buoyant. The first verse is straight, the second more open. The third is wondrous, how Mehldau plays around and through the melody in his unique voice. In the fourth verse he shifts out of the lilting 3/4 into an angular, jutting jaunt. In the last one he stretches even farther from the source, then ending by quoting Paul verbatim.

I can’t describe jazz in words, I can only talk around it. Jazz happens between the improvising creator and the listener. I’m not in the equation. Lee Konitz called it ‘the sound of surprise.’ This is my kind of jazz. Nothing paranormal about that, just Brad Mehldau playing my heart and my mind with his fingers.