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Brad Mehldau: Bud's Dance Between the Intuitive and the Counter-Intuitive

In the sixth part of his series Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane, Brad Mehldau—using multiple examples of scores—discusses variety and virtuosity, and intuition and counter-intuition in playing.

Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Part Six: Bud's Dance Between the Intuitive and the Counter-Intuitive

I went back to those players who didn't measure up for Barry Harris—those who didn't have the triplets in their playing—and examined them in a more critical light. They were mostly from the hard bop era that followed the bop revolution, roughly from the middle '50s to the early '60s. Now I noticed a paradox. One the one hand, I heard their limitations—I heard how their improvisatory vocabularies contained a piece of something Bird had done, but could never contain the whole of what he had expressed, and how that fact meant that there was a certain predictability in their playing. They didn't knock me out of my chair in quite the same way that Bird himself could at his best. On the other hand, I heard that their limitation was also part of the beauty of their expression: The way a player like Hank Mobley isolated key phrases from Bird and then placed them in the context of his own sound, his own compositions, and the bands he played with, was a beautiful tribute to Bird, but also built on Bird, forming a continuity. It was the way the music grew: incrementally; not always in great leaps and bounds. Not everybody could be Bird. It got me thinking along the lines of what I touched on earlier: that limitation in jazz has its own beauty, which has to do with the expression of humanity.

One great exception for Barry Harris was Bud Powell. Powell, perhaps more than anyone else in Parker's immediate realm, approached the rhythmic variety—and virtuosity—of Bird. Here is a snatch of Bud's right hand only from a solo on the Denzil Best blowing vehicle, "Move," in a band led by Bird. The tempo is stupid-fast—we need to split the time to get an existing metronome marking and come up with 168 half notes per minute. When I was coming up with other guys, trying to play these kinds of tempos, we simply called them "Bird tempos." Bird himself sounds incredible on them, Bud hangs in there valiantly, and most other players sound anywhere between limited and silly. This is the second A section and the bridge of a chorus of Bud's solo. Notice those triplets that Harris admonished us about—here they are in abundance:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Ladies and gentleman—a master. Here is a stream of ideas worthy of Bird himself in terms of variety of phrasing, melodic and harmonic invention. That this solo is packed with so much substance is all the more astounding when you consider the ridiculously fast tempo of this performance. The way to get into solos like this is to bring them down at first to a medium groove and explore them up close. Then you see that there is no flimsy architecture—there is no meaningless playing that the fast tempo is hiding. Bud, like Bird, has a Bach-like quality: You can slow him down, you can speed him up, you can change the key, you can change the instrument—and it will sound good. This weatherproof quality of the music that Bud Powell and Charlie Parker made, this durability in any context, is truly humbling.

The key to Bud's deepness is that he's really just going for it at this tempo—he's hearing stuff in his head, and then he tries to play it. Take for instance the last two bars of the bridge above:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

You could argue that Bud actually intended to play this:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Then the line flows naturally; there's no hiccup. Without the imagined E-flat that I've inserted on the downbeat of the second bar, the listener hears a very dissonant E natural ending a phrase on the last upbeat of the first bar that drops off to nowhere. With the E-flat, we have one smooth two-part phrase with continuity. The E-flat is the pivot point between the two bars. The reason, one suspects, that Bud didn't play an E-flat there, was because of the sheer difficulty his brain confronted in the white heat of his improvisation at this tempo: Pianists, try fingering that line with the added E-flat at any tempo and you see that it's awkward; then try at the tempo Bud played it—it's next to impossible. So, in that fleeting moment, Bud picked up his hand for a fraction of a second and shifted, so he could catch the low G with his thumb.

Trying to figure out how to finger what Bud actually did play in his up-tempo solos can keep you busy for a stretch, and you may not come up with anything. Bud's solo here is hard in a 20th-century classical music way, or maybe that's my personal bias: I remember transcribing this solo and then trying to play it at the same time I was working on Samuel Barber's Piano Sonata and Prokofiev's Seventh Sonata. Strangely, although Bud's solo is in such a different expressive world from those pieces, it poses some of the same fingering challenges for the right hand—it has the same kind of nasty, finger twisting, kind-of-chromatic-but-not-completely-chromatic lines that those pieces have, and can be realized in a performance only with a similarly counter-intuitive fingering approach. That is striking in the case of the Bud solo, because Bud did not write it out ahead of time. There's high speed trial-and-error decision making going on here, but it's behind a curtain: We only hear the end result in that musical phrase that flies past us. There's something going on here that is not normal, and it goes to the heart of what (great) jazz improvisation is all about.

Here are three types of jazz improvisers:


Pros: In the moment, in touch with the source of one's inspiration. The ideas flow easily, unrestricted. One is truly hearing something and then playing it, as is the ideal.

Cons: It's hit and miss. The ideas are not necessarily earth shattering, fresh, or particularly original. It's whatever one feels at a given moment, which can be arbitrary.


Pros: Not repeating oneself too often, can sustain the listener's interest without actually being inspired. Sometimes comes up with something that has never been played before.

Cons: It's hit and miss. The ideas are not necessarily beautiful, flowing, or particularly iconic. It's whatever one avoids and backs away from, taking another path, at a given moment, which can be arbitrary.

Intuitive and Counter-intuitive from one moment to the next 

Pros: In the moment, in touch with the source of one's inspiration. And if the source becomes obscured, if the light flickers a little, jump to a counter-intuitive approach; that way you will not repeat yourself too often, get bored, and become boring. Then remain open—and the inspiration will return.

Cons: None. The very process of switching between the head and the heart yields a multi-dimensional listening experience in itself. It ensures variety. It's what the great improvisers are doing—they're constantly hopscotching between the intuitive and counter-intuitive approach. And it is what Bud is doing on the micro-level here with his quick fingering adjustment: He has an intuitive line that he hears at that tempo—in fact it's a shape that comes from Bird, especially the second half of it—and then he realizes that at this tempo in this key, with this particular order of notes, it will not be possible to make it to the low G on the upbeat of 1 on the second bar. So he picks up his hand and severs the one idea into two, counter-intuitively.

Or—intuitively: In fact, we could say about Bud and other master improvisers, that it is ultimately all intuitive, that the counter-intuitive becomes intuitive. If you are truly improvising and playing what you hear in a given moment, it means that you will come up against shapes and patterns that are not necessarily lodged in your finger memory through repeated practice and playing. So you get used to a constant calibration and adjustment of what you already know, and a constant confrontation with something that is not yet known. Well, you should anyway. Again, the thought comes to mind: How do you teach that? How do you impart that process to someone else? Whatever the case, as someone who's probably had a few moments of inspired improvisation along the way—there's my two cents. You do that, like Bud did it. Good luck!

The way these decisions are being made in fractions of a second, in a kind of continuum, and all the while, Bud is engaged in the storytelling continuity of the big picture—the solo itself, as a whole—well, this goes in a list of the best things that people can do, in there with great athletic accomplishments, scientific breakthroughs and the like—it is not a normal skill; it is not a normal form of expression. It is where I locate the sublime in jazz.

The Primacy of the Upbeat in Swinging Jazz

What is the musical pay-off, though, for the listener? How is Bud's skipping over that E-flat an aesthetic victory as well, and not a failure? After all, we lose the symmetry and cohesiveness of the long phrase; we are left with a dangling dissonance; we are left with an awkward ending on an upbeat. The quick answer is: Jazz is not about symmetry; jazz is all about these kind of dissonances; and, more importantly, in matters of rhythm, jazz is all about ending on an upbeat.

Within the great, swinging feeling of so much of jazz, the roles of downbeats and upbeats are opposite those of several centuries of Western art music. Specifically, the musical phrases lead to an upbeat and end there. Here are a few examples of melodies, with arrows given on those upbeats.

Charlie Parker's "Ornithology":

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Billy Strayhorn's "U.M.M.G.":

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

On Tadd Dameron's "On A Misty Night," we see how upbeats can be a release of rhythmic tension in jazz. The three half-notes that begin the piece are building tension here, which is then released on those arrowed upbeats. The rhythmic impulse is exactly opposite from classical phraseology:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" is all about eighth-note upbeats—it's where all the action takes place during those famous chromatically ascending and descending chords built from fourth intervals:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Even Coltrane's "Giant Steps," a harmonically based melody with little rhythmic variation, ends its famous chordal sequences on the anticipatory upbeat of 4, and not on the following downbeat:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Again, downbeats are tension leading to the release on the upbeat. This looks similar to the first two bars of Dameron's "On A Misty Night," which Coltrane played on as well—it might have rubbed off on him.

This rhythmic paradigm in swinging jazz affects everything—it in turn affects the melodic rhythm; it affects where consonance and dissonance take place within a line. The classical model of counterpoint begins with the premise that the upbeat is a stepping-stone on the way to consonance, which arrives on a downbeat. I do not refer to a final, resolving consonance; I refer to the provisional resolution from dissonance that is constantly taking place within a melodic line that has one or more additional voices above or below it denoting harmony. Take a relatively simple texture, like the first few bars of Bach's Prelude in F-sharp Minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

In the first two bars, I've marked the dissonant intervals that arise here from the simultaneous sounding of the left hand and right hand notes—they are major and minor seconds, a perfect fourth and an augmented fourth. All except one take place on a sixteenth-note upbeat, resolving immediately to a consonant interval on the following downbeat. The downbeat is the destination.

In jazz, though, the upbeat is the destination—and thus often a point of consonance. Again, "Ornithology":

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

So Bird might have played that Bach Prelude above like this,

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

resolving phrases on upbeats, and Bach might have played "Ornithology" like this,

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

resolving on downbeats.

Okay, okay—I hear some of you out there protesting—jazz phrases that end on a downbeat are easy to find. I'm demonstrating a principal, though, not a rule.

In swinging jazz, phrases that end on downbeats are often a kind of square novelty, connoting humorous irony. We do not expect their squareness in the context they arrive in, and they grab our attention and make us smile, as in the melody of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You":

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

The tail of the opening phrase has a square, oafish quality to it. Monk modulates it, developing it just a bit, and displaces it so everything is more properly jazz, on the upbeats. At bars 6 and 7, though, the square guy drives his point home once more, as if to say, "No, it's this!" The way in which Monk's motifs become droll, insistent characters reminds us of the similar humor we saw earlier in Beethoven's Diabelli Variations.

Likewise, phrases that accentuate the upbeat are of course all over classical music. But until the 20th century, they have an ironic function; they are not the norm for the context in which they arise. Theodor Adorno, in his disappointing misappraisal of jazz, wrote off its rhythmic singularity, sourly maintaining that Brahms had already written such syncopated music. I'm guessing that he meant something like this snaky passage from the scherzo movement of Brahms' second cello sonata:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

The rhythmic displacement of those piano chords is downright funky, and to show how rhythmically hip Brahms was, we could use our trick again of making the square version that a less inspired composer might have come up with, like we did earlier with the opening of his First Symphony. Then see that those spooky upbeat piano chords are a skewed, off-kilter version of this kind of normality:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

It's perfectly acceptable when we place those chords on downbeats—the tension still builds from the modulation and the insistent thematic economy. But what Brahms actually wrote really can make your butt bounce, and in the hands of some grooving musicians, it's possible to make that passage swing in a certain fashion. (Emmanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma achieve that in both of their recordings on RCA and Sony. The way Ax plays those offbeat chords is nasty and subtle—it's like he's sucking the notes out of the piano. That is some of my favorite piano playing right there, and incredible music making between those two guys.)

Nevertheless that passage is an effect for Brahms—it is designed to build tension; it takes place in a movement whose melodic phrases are largely ending on downbeats. The release of rhythmic tension— the provisional destination of all this restlessness—immediately follows, with phrases that end on downbeats. Let's look at the same passage again and extend a little further to arrive at that rhythmic resolution:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane
Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

This is Brahms at his hair-raising, scary-funky best, masterfully building tension and then giving us provisional release. For the first eight bars that we've already seen, the piano plays only the weird upbeat chords. At bar 9, the right hand stays with that upbeat pattern, but the left hand octaves add downbeats immediately after. It is a wonderful effect when they appear because they act on us retrospectively: It is as if there were notes there all along, but they were written in invisible ink; now they are revealed to us. This reminds us that syncopation achieves its effect just as much from absence as it does from presence. It does not only emphasize the "weak beat"; it also withholds musical information on the downbeat, confounding our expectation.

Bars 9-12 segue toward rhythmic resolution at bar 13—the downbeats are emphasized with accents and sforzandos to drive the point home. Note that partial harmonic resolution is reached here as well: Bar 13, with its emphasis on the downbeat, also signals a large pedal point over the tonic home key of F. The poignancy of this moment is thus twofold: The otherness of those more distant shifting tonalities from bars 1-8 is vanquished in the same moment that the downbeat reasserts itself. The moment of nobility for Brahms, if you will, must land on "one," in both the harmonic and rhythmic sense.

Syncopation in classical music operates by confounding our expectations when it withholds the emphasis on the downbeat. Swinging jazz music that emphasizes upbeats, though, is surely not one long act of withholding—the rhythmic pleasure of swing has a deeply satiating effect on the body. The reasons why swing feels good, quite simply, are different than the reasons that that passage of Brahms feels good. To speak about syncopation, as commentators long have done when describing jazz, is even misleading in as far as syncopation is a trope for rhythmic otherness. The accented upbeats so prevalent in jazz are not the Other—they are home base; they are part of jazz's DNA. In a swinging 4/4 meter, we clap on beats two and four of the bar:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

The upbeat has a primacy in a swing feel. There's no "rule"—clap wherever you like—but for someone who has the feeling of swing in his or her body, it feels wrong to clap to that kind of swing-based music on beats one and three, as one might to a 4/4 meter in much of classical music. I suspect that the way the upbeat prevails in swing in this larger metrical sense correlates with its primacy within a melodic line that we looked at in the examples above. This rhythmic unity of the universal and particular in jazz is what Adorno seems to have missed; he heavy-handedly applied a rhythmic paradigm from the Western art music in his field of knowledge. In doing so, he strikes me as unwittingly engaging in the kind of dominating thought and bad universalism that he is so critical of elsewhere in his own writing.

So, going back to Bud finally—when he plays that truncated phrase we looked at above, that ends on the eighth-note upbeat at the end of the bar, it sounds hip; it sounds natural. Should we wonk out and speculate why it feels good? It's only speculation, but here's my two cents: It's all about the swing feel, and the swing is all about triplets. Those triplets could never be notated accurately to reflect one way of swinging; this is why common musical notation hits a dead end with jazz in terms of rhythm. When we commonly write eighth-notes in a swinging jazz setting, we rely on the individual player's feeling for swing, and in an ensemble, we rely on a group consensus as to how those eighth-notes will be stated among the players.

Put briefly, the result of that consensus among the players in the rhythm section of a group—the drummer, bassist, pianist, and often guitarist—is the expression of a group's feel, and the particular feel of a swinging rhythm section is one of the ways it asserts its individual greatness, as in the rhythm sections of the John Coltrane Quartet of the '60s, or the Miles Davis Quintet of the '50s and '60s. We speak of performative gestures here—we cannot accurately write down drummer Elvin Jones's triplets or drummer Jimmy Cobb's triplets. Yet the feeling of these drummers—and the other musicians who interact with them—is as much an integral part of the identity of those groups as what can be notated—the solos, the chords of the piano, the bass lines.

There is a notational poverty in jazz where rhythm is concerned, an inability to forensically portray on paper what was great about those most dynamic rhythmicists in jazz, the ones who have changed the music and who are part of its unshaking identity today in everything that we play. This is why jazz's canon for many is a canon of recordings—it is a performative canon more than a written canon. I do not wish to mystify or reduce the written achievements in jazz, and likewise those who have made the worthy effort to strengthen our sense of a notated canon in jazz. There is the opportunity, though, to deconstruct a binary that I've focused on and tried to make a theme in my residency at Carnegie Hall this season: written vs. unwritten. The jazz legacy clearly inhabits both disciplines.

I think that that duality in jazz can lead to some interesting questions, in turn, about classical music. Do we perhaps give classical music an aura of (privileged) authority in the larger culture because its canon is more notatable? Is that good for classical music in general—could the classical music culture perhaps benefit from a shift in perspective, and take the focus a bit off the written canon, placing it more on performance? Instead of learning the 32 Beethoven Sonatas, what would the classical music scene look like in some alternate reality if pianists focused more on learning Beethoven's gestural language, his formal development, his way of organizing tonality, and then started trying to simply play something— partially or wholly improvised—informed by that? Classical musicians and jazz musicians, when they hang out, often have a conversation that goes something like this:

Classical musician: "I watch you jazz musicians and am jealous—I wish I could just improvise like that. But every time I try, I just have no idea where to start. I get nervous in part because I never do it."

Jazz musician: "I watch you classical musicians and I get jealous—I wish that I could play with that kind of precision and exactitude, and be able to play all that great repertoire. There would never be enough time to do that—I'd have to go back to school and start all over."

There are merits to both disciplines—but why can't we mix them up? The short answer, I think, is that we are, bit by bit, more and more. When I came to New York City in 1988, the two worlds were much more polarized than they are now. Now I meet classically trained musicians who are eager to engage in music that is not fully notated and calls for improvisation. I also notice that jazz musicians are becoming more and more curious about the classical canon, and, by feeding that curiosity, are becoming stronger improvisers and composers. One example: Younger jazz musicians today are on the whole simply better sight-readers than they were twenty years ago—good sight-reading is no longer an attribute of professional orchestras only.

Going back to the triplets, finally, with no more diversions! Here is a snatch of Charlie Parker's "Ornithology" once again, written the way it is normally notated, with those arrows that show how the upbeats are accented in the jazz feel:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

If we had to try to reflect the feeling of swing, though, we might write something like this. Notice how those accents fall now—always on the third eighth note triplet of each group:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

If someone played that literally, he or she would be in the ballpark—a kind of self-conscious facsimile of the ballpark—of swing. But what a mess on the page, with that cluttered triplet notation—why not simply change the meter to 12/8? Then we get this:

Brad Mehldau: Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane

Okay, that works to point. But, to the extent that meter is supposed to denote the feeling and intent of the composer—did Charlie Parker the composer intend the band to be internally subdividing each bar 12 times? The triplets in a swing feel are implied in the melodic line, but they are not overtly stated in the rhythm section. The rhythm section reinforces them lightly in its upbeats, but does not subdivide these triplets so literally and so often. This is why those triplets were important to Barry in that master class, interspersed with eighth-notes: The eighth-notes denote the soft, bouncing feeling of the triplet already, and interspersing them with actual triplets gives outright expression to the subdivision of three.

Swing has its roots in dance, like other musical genres that are based in a feeling of three, but it is not a gigue. It is not even a hip scherzo like the Brahms we focused on above: In the Brahms—which I conjectured Adorno thought was jazzy because it accented the upbeats—the subdivided eighth-notes in the 6/8 meter are always literally felt—they are played in a continuous stream by the cello. There is no doubt about the primacy of "three" as a factor. In swinging jazz, though, that "three" is undermined by a larger "four" that moves across it and intersects with it—most obviously, the "four" of a bass line that walks quarter notes. We feel two things at once in swing, rubbing against each other wonderfully: the soft bounce of quicker triplet upbeats and the larger sturdiness of a slower meter in four. This mixture of slow and fast subdivisions has a twofold aspect, and accounts for some of the character of swing, which we trace around in the descriptive language to describe when it is strong: player X has a "fat" groove; player Y has a "big" or "wide" beat. Metaphors that denote largeness abound.

There is a ton of room in that larger "four"/smaller "three"—namely, room for all of that stuff that cannot be precisely notated. There is justice in that non-notatable quality. It is a kind of metaphysical insurance against flattening reductionism in an age where cultural artifacts are transmitted increasingly in a digital format.

MIDI—the prevailing digital means of rendering and manipulating musical information—will be with us for some time to come, but it does not account for the nuance of rhythm we find in swing. Every great drummer in jazz has a unique way of subdividing the beat into something we approximate as triplets when we have to give it a name. Billy Higgins, Philly Joe Jones, Art Taylor, Kenny Clarke, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams—and not to mention the great ones who are still with us, like Jimmy Cobb: Each one of these drummers has a particular, identifiable swing feel, and each gives us a specific feeling in the body that is now a part of the world's musical culture. The way we identify that in our body-memory has to do with a human form of interaction that is not reducible to an algorithm.

Related: Brad Mehldau: The Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall