Song of the Week: “Wonderwall” (Brad Mehldau Trio)
May 2013 21

I haven’t used the blog on this site much, and in my quest to find a more regular non-musical way to communicate to the internet at large, I thought I’d give a shot at a new (hopefully) weekly series.  The gist: I write about an interesting song that’s been resonating in my skull, and, if all goes well, I get it rattling around in yours.  I’ll try to shake things up week to week with artists of different styles, genres, and eras, and my aim is to keep technical terminology to a minimum so this can be a read for a wide swath of music fans rather than just music students.  For this first installment, I have a recording that may surprise you…

“Wonderwall” (Brad Mehldau Trio)
From the album Live, released 2008
Words and music by Liam Gallagher

Anyone who lived through the 1990s is likely familiar with Oasis’s Beatlesque hit, “Wonderwall.”  It’s not their chart-topping original that’s been transfixing me lately, though — my recent plumbing of the depths of piano-driven jazz turned up this twisting, turning instrumental version by the Brad Mehldau Trio.

Brief background: pianist Brad Mehldau came to prominence as a sideman and bandleader  in the mid-1990s, and has often enjoyed the challenge of reinterpreting rock songs in a jazz context.  Much of the canon of jazz standards comes from popular songs back when the theater was the source of pop music (example: Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are,”), so I always appreciate artists who continue the trend into more contemporary pop and rock.

For the jazz-averse who may be reading this, the first thing I’ll draw attention to is how little Mehldau does to decorate or deconstruct the familiar melody.  For the first verse and chorus, before Melhdau begins to solo, even the chords he plays with his left hand are (by post-bebop standards) relatively simple, adding only a few color tones and alternative harmonies to turn the head of someone expecting Noel Gallagher’s guitar accompaniment from the original (1:40 – 1:45 is a little unexpected, no?).

And though Mehldau is certainly capable of taking some extremely adventurous solos — and builds to some great chopsy licks from 6:17 to 6:48 — he never goes too long without teasing you with the melody (like at 4:54).  He just pushes the boundaries of expected notes enough to perk up your ears and make you hear the song in a new way, rather than transforming it completely.  It’s a combination of exploration and restraint that I’ve come to appreciate more than manic displays of virtuosity.  There’s a delicate musical balance that, ideally, makes the proceedings as accessible and inviting to the untrained ear as they are intriguing and challenging to a music aficionado.

That said, I’d be remiss to not discuss out how far from Oasis the rhythm section takes this tune.  Drummer Jeff Ballard’s brush work and (starting around 1:47) snare hits weave around the melody and Mehldau’s left hand punctuations, giving the tune a groove without ever becoming predictable enough for you to tune him out.  This tight but fluid drumming is, for me, one of the great joys of listening to contemporary jazz.  The real “wow” factor, though, comes from the constantly-cycling bass line played by Larry Grenadier.  Other than its hinting at the tune’s opening melody, it may not sound like much.  But listen closely: the line is about thirteen-and-a-half beats long, and repeats itself immediately, regardless of where it lines up against the even, four-to-the-bar pattern established by the piano and drums.  This means that he’s basically playing in an alternate time signature from the rest of the trio, his line starting and ending at a different place every time he plays it, until he locks back in with the others and everyone is suddenly on solid ground again (1:17, perhaps?).

(If you’re as interested in this sort of rhythmic mischief as I am, Brad Mehldau has an article here on his website where he gets into the nitty gritty of it.)

So buckle up for the ride — the Mehldau recording clocks in at about 8:45, considerably longer than the Oasis original, but if you’re as taken with it as I am, it’ll fly by as the pianist and his mighty rhythm section take you on a journey through a song you thought you knew too well.  Let me know what you think!

Have a suggestion for next week’s song?  I will take requests in an enthusiastic but arbitrary way that caters to my own preference and prejudice.  Leave a comment here on the site, or shoot me an e-mail at sbl@samuelblupowitz.com.

See you next week!

Cheers,
SBL

2 Comments

  1. Drew Serafini says:

    If you haven’t already, check out his version of “Black Hole Sun.” All 19 minutes of it.

  2. Dave Cooper says:

    Wow Sam, you made my day with this. I had heard this guys name many times but was unfamiliar with his music. I just loved this tune. I’m sorry to say I don’t know the original, which if I did, would make me love it even more. Anyway, I agreed with all you said in your analysis, especially the part about the joys of listening to contemporary jazz drumming. I was listening to the tune while I was composing emails and my head jerked up at 6:48 where he starts vamping on the major flat six to major flat seven to minor one, then just the six to the one for about a minute. wow- it gave me chills. it was so unexpected. Anyway, thank you very very much. I also loved Mehldau’s article on hemiola – the Brahms example was especially meaningful to me because that is who introduced hemiola to me in his Intermezzo in A major. This was a great start to my day!

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