DMA Recital 2, Sunday 10th February 2013 @ KMC, Shortland St.

Mark Baynes - 10- Feb 2013 - 2


Overview of DMA


Mehldau has gained much acclaim in the jazz world via the fusion of styles into his performance; validation of his stylistic influences is not a difficult task.  Even if there is doubt after active listening to Mehldau’s oeuvre, Brad’s Classical stylistic bent (for example) is well documented amongst critics, scholars, and Mehldau himself.

‘I draw on a lot of classical music, pop and rock music, music from Brazil, and other stuff. I listen to it for pleasure and enjoyment, and then a lot of it filters out in my playing. With classical music, there’s a written canon there – you can study those scores. There’s a good three centuries of stuff to check out – it’s endless.  Ultimately I think of myself as an improvising jazz musician at the end of the day, and one of my talents I guess is assimilating all of that written stuff and making it part of what I do.’ – Brad Mehldau (Vella, 2011)

Towards Emancipation of the Dissonant

‘Dissonance makes music interesting, providing tension, resolution, and energy.  The creative use of dissonance might be a good way to describe the entire evolution of Western music.’ – (Levine, 1995, p38)

In addition to Mehldau’s acknowledged stylistic assimilation, a seminal component of Brad’s playing is the tendency for improvisation pertaining to a ‘diatonic lyricism’ (Liebman, 2005, p172).  Mehldau’s consonant melodies are regularly coloured with ‘metric dissonance’ (Krebs, 1987, p99), ‘motivic dissonance’ (Brodbeck, 2001, p211), ‘harmonic dissonance’ (Kamien, 1988, p41) and tonal dissonances using ‘intervallic denial’ and ‘linear tonality’ (Liebman, p172).  Mehldau’s unique treatment of consonance and dissonance in his performances forms the central tenet of my exegesis.

‘It’s hard to talk about this without coming off as sounding pompous but I have my own voice.  Without getting too technical, I have a certain way of approaching melody and harmony that some people might recognise as my own’ – Brad Mehldau (Panken, 2008)

Towards Imitation, Assimilation, and Innovation

A Doctor of Musical Arts Degree (DMA) is primarily focused on performance, via practice-led research.  The information gleaned from my phenomenological account of Mehldau’s concept, will allow development of a set of improvisational skills extracted from the foundation of Mehldau’s music.

‘By analyzing good melodies and melodic solos we can develop a set of techniques and approaches that, when musically applied, will lead to melodic improvising which rises above licks, tricks, riffs, clichés and change-running, connecting with us and?our audiences emotionally as well as intellectually.’ – (Middleton, 2005, p11)

Recital 2 – Compositions of Brad Mehldau

This recital contains nine compositions written by Brad Mehldau.  These compositions contain elements of melody, harmony, consonance and dissonances that resonate with me, and the study of which (along with recital 1), will form the central tenet of my degree program.  The aims of this recital are as follows: –

  1. To demonstrate a musical understanding of Mehldau’s original works.
  2. To exemplify, via performance, the consonance and dissonance found in Mehldau’s compositions.
  3. To demonstrate the early stages of melodic improvisation and dissonances as described above.

Consonance and Dissonance

‘Tension and Release: This is the basic life principle of opposing pairs as in yin and yang, night and day, life and death, etc.  Artistically, this principle means that in a meaningful statement there should be a balance of excitement and quiescence, action and relaxation. It can be conceived as the act of a question being posed and subsequently answered. If the artist exaggerates either the tension or the release aspects, the expressive power and ultimate communication of the statement will be weakened. Obviously, this tension and release principle is relative to every situation, but in general is quite pervasive.  In Western music, the principle of tension and release has been realized harmonically in the dominant-tonic axis. In between these two extremes lies the subdominant function. This means that a musical gesture (harmonic, melodic or rhythmic) is active and leading towards some goal (dominant); is between a feeling of activity and repose (subdominant); or is at a place of rest (tonic). Chromaticism is no different than diatonicism in this respect. Within each context, everything is relative. Once the consonance-dissonance level of a particular musical area is established, these three basic functions should still be discernible in relation to each other along with the many possible shadings in between.’ – (Liebman, p13)

‘Most stories are constructed with a variation of the same form: in the beginning there is relative calm — something comes along which disrupts the calm — in the end something happens to restore the order.  Playing outside usually follows the established pattern discussed above: IN (order established by playing within the key area) — OUT (order disrupted by playing outside of the key area) — IN (a return to the key area). The IN establishes order like a tonic chord; the OUT behaves like a dominant, so a line that moves IN – OUT – IN is much like a progression that moves I – V7 – I.’ – (Ligon, 2001, p394)

Jazz theory texts seem to put it quite simply, that dissonance leads to consonance as part of a natural musical tendency.  These dissonances are usually catogorised into headings such as sideslipping, planing, tonicisation, superimposition of harmony, superimposition of exotic scales, chromatics, quartals etc.  Mehldau regularly employs what is found in these texts.  However, after studying 300 improvisational excerpts and at least 20 transcribed solos, other examples of dissonance occur so regularly that they can be considered part of Mehldau’s individual improvisational style.  Some of these idiosyncrasies are described below: –


  • Mehldau fuses new tensions not described in jazz texts into his melodic lines, tensions often on the downbeat such as a maj7th over dom7th, b9 and maj7th over dom7th, maj3rd over min7th.  These dissonances are often moving, sometimes in pairs and act as non-diatonic accented passing notes.
  • Mehldau uses unusual linear tonality such as Ebmaj7 over F#7 and Db major over C7alt, subtle changes to the convention, but a character nonetheless.
  • There are clear examples where Mehldau uses specific metric dissonance moving to consonance; I have named this phenomenon a ‘stutter’, moving from a sense of uneasiness to metric resolution.
  • There are clear and repeated examples where Mehldau temporarily straightens the swing feel of a melody of improvisation, creating metric dissonance (IN-OUT-IN), 12/8 to 4/4 etc.
  • Other dissonances not exemplified are harmonic and motivic.

NB: These examples (and also these program notes in general) should not be considered academically vigorous per se, but instead serve to give the panel a taste of my final exegesis.

The Problem of Melody

‘Melody is variously defined according to the point of view from which it is considered. The musical theorist necessarily adopts an empirical definition of melody which makes it conform with occidental standards of consonance, where-as the student of exotic music finds himself impelled to adopt a much broader definition to cover the heterophonous phenomena of primitive music.’ – (Thurstone, 1920, p326)

‘We cannot even say, with any degree of surety, what constitutes a good melody.  Still, most people think they know a beautiful melody when they hear one. Therefore, they must be applying certain criteria, even though unconscious ones. Though we may not be able to define what a good melody is in advance, we certainly can make some generalisations about melodies that we already know to be good, and that may help to make clearer characteristics of good melodic writing.’ – (Copland, 2009, p41)

Copland also suggests that melody is associated strongly with emotion.  In Melodic Improvising (Middleton, 2005), Middleton reminds us that melodic improvising is an intuitive, non-intellectual or technical process based on intervallic content, rhythmic content and phrasing.  Middleton acknowledges the tendencies towards the intellectual and technical in jazz music, but reminds us

‘Melodicism in improvisation reflects an awareness and understanding of melodic materials as well as openness to the moment, and avoidance of cliché, trust in one’s instincts, and a willingness to let your ear take you where it will.  Our level of study and preparation ideally serves only to inform the intuitive guide that we all possess, which we often censor in favour of the comfort of playing what we know’ (Middleton, p14).

A seminal component of Brad Mehldau’s playing is the tendency for improvisation pertaining to a ‘diatonic lyricism’, with a strong melodic component.  The juxtaposition of melodic playing and tasteful use of dissonance will shape my performance today; it has become the primary focus of this degree program.

Recital Pieces

1. Unrequited

A harmonically cyclical composition, played by the trio, it contains a strong harmonic bias.  Devices such as delayed cadences extend the harmonic rhythm and help prolong tension causes by constantly shifting key centers.

2. When It Rains

Harmonically the simplest head, however this is a groove tune that relies heavily on the use of hemiolas between the triplet-based left hand and a straight 8th drum groove.  In addition to the trio, Nick Marsh is providing harmonic support on guitar.

3. Ode

This beautifully melodic composition is based on a single motif, transposed, repeated and developed over a 62 bar form.  The harmony is altered and the form extended by 2 bars during solos.

4. Resignation

A solo piano performance in 7/4, possibly my most advanced solo attempt yet.  Like Unrequited, the melody is largely horizontal, with a strong harmonic bias that peaks at bar 17. Mehldau uses second inversion chords as pivots to move between different key centers, and the bass line is often chromatic.

5. Kurt Vibe

Melodically, Kurt Vibe is simply based on a repeated 2-bar cell over a 16-bar head.  It incorporates a funk style backbeat with a chromatically descending bass line that slowly descends for 4 bars.  The harmonic rhythm of the piano is in two bar sections, where the first bar utilises strong dissonance, such as a perfect 4th over a dominant chord or a b9th over a minor chord.  These dissonances are always resolved in the subsequent bar.  Structurally, Kurt Vibe follows an AABC form where A and C share the same melody but with differing harmonic movement, essentially still in the tonic key of Eb.

6. Elegy For William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg

A solo ballad in 12/8, which uses both functional and non-functional harmonic movement.  The time feel is straightened out during bars 7-8 and 13-14, creating metric dissonance.  Also during these same bars, Mehldau creates dissonance in the melodic line by using non-diatonic passing notes such as a C# over Cmajor7 and A# over B7alt, either acting as a delayed (or anticipated) resolution.

7. At The Tollbooth/Don’t Be Sad/Highway Rider

These three pieces share the same musical gambit, a 4-bar harmonic motif descending in tones.  At The Tollbooth is performed as a solo work, it contains some interesting melodic movement especially during bars 13-14, employing a strong melodic contour containing chromatic dissonance such as a C# over a D7.  Don’t be sad is a piece in 3 with a swung flavour; the melody is mainly played by guitar that begins as a piano/guitar duo.  Don’t be sad demonstrates how Mehldau adds dissonance to simplicity, probably the most noteworthy example is at bar 41 where the melody Db Eb E Eb is supported by a Bb major chord.  Highway Rider is the final piece in the trilogy, played in a Drum and Bass style, the melody is transposed between several keys, and the feel is face paced and energetic.


Thanks to my band Alex Freer, Jo Shum and Nick Marsh and to my supervisors David Lines and Kevin Field.

Thanks to my wife Arian and daughter Amelie, both now inspiration for all that I do.


Brodbeck, D. (2001).  Brahms Studies, Volume 3.  University of Nebraska Press, USA.

Copland, A. (2009).  What To Listen For In Music.  Penguin Group, Toronta, Canada.  New American Library.

Kamien, R. (1988).  Music An Appreciation.  McGraw-Hill  Inc, Singapore  McGraw Hill Book Co.

Krebs, H. (1987).  Some Extensions Of The Concepts Of Metrical Consonance And Dissonance.  Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 99-120.  Duke University Press.

Levine, M. (1989). The Jazz Piano Book / by Mark Levine. Petaluma, CA  :: Sher Music Co.

Liebman, D. (2005). A Chromatic Approach To Jazz Harmony And Melody.  Rottenburg, Neckar, Germany :: Advance Music.

Ligon, B. (2001). Jazz Theory Resources Volume 1 & 2.  Milwaukee, WI. :: H. Leonard Corp.

Middleton, A. (2005). Melodic Improvising. Tubingen, Germany :: Advance Music.

Panken, T. (2008). In Conversation with Brad Mehldau Retrieved 26th March, 2009, from

Rivoira, M. Larsdon, L. Vogt, P. (2010).  Jazz In The Present Tense (DVD).  Indiepix, NY.

Thurstone, L. (1920).  The Problem of Melody.  The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Jul., 1920), pp. 426-429.  Oxford University Press.

Vella, J. (2011).  Interview With Brad Mehldau on the Art of Solo Piano.  Retrieved 11th July 2011, from

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