Mark McKnight
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Brad Mehldau – ‘Ron’s Place’

A luminary of contemporary jazz piano, Brad Mehldau’s bar-setting improvisational approach balances seemingly boundless technical facility with patient motivic development and a distinctive rhythmic sophistication.

This post considers 10 significant examples from my transcription/arrangement of Mehldau’s 1997 recording ‘Ron’s Place’, which is demonstrated in full below.

Download the complete 15-page guitar transcription/arrangement here!

Examples include both a video time and transcription bar reference.  Chord symbols indicate to the standard song form throughout.

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Ex 1

Adaptation of pianistic performance for the guitar generally involves reduced chord voicings.  This example highlights 9 useful shapes which accurately distil elements of Mehldau’s harmonic vocabulary.

Be sure to examine each in the context of the main transcription, which contains a range of additional chord types.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex1

Ex 2 – 0:42 / Bar 45

Mehldau frequently employs melodic variation/counterpoint within what could otherwise be considered ’block’ voicings (grey). Note this chord’s arrangement across non-adjacent strings, necessitating a fingerstyle or hybrid picking right-hand technique.

The extract closes with a series of double stops (blue), which we will see engaged as a halfway house between melody and harmony throughout examples to follow.

Mehldau Ron's Place Ex2

Ex 3 – 1:55 / Bar 121

Expanding upon the principles of Example 2, here we see further use of double stops (grey) followed by a more extensive ‘call and response’ double stop/melody counterpoint (blue).

Even 8th notes in the context of a swing rhythm section feel (green) create subtle rhythmic tension. This technique, previously discussed in relation to Adam Rogers, is referenced again at Example 8.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex3

Ex 4 – 3:31 / Bar 225

A variation on the theme of ‘call and response’ established at Example 3, this passage removes counterpoint whilst maintaining the clear implication of separate lower and upper voices (grey and blue respectively). ‘Unguitaristic’ parallel double stops may require some extra technical attention.

Switching harmony to the lower voice, Mehldau interjects a series of propulsive voicings between a rising melodic motif (green).

Mehldau Ron's Place Ex4

Ex 5 – 2:38 / Bar 168

Maintaining a generally consistent melody to double stop structure (grey), Mehldau creates interest through variation and displacement, eventually reversing the motif’s emphasis (blue).

Again such use of double stops is fairly unconventional in the context of guitar performance but absolutely realistic with appropriate arrangement and practice.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex5

Ex 6 – 3:38 / Bar 232

Example 6 develops the previous extract’s double stop legato technique (grey) to include a further dyad (blue).

Although initial harmonies are viable as single guitar chord shapes, the section progresses to include a variety of unusual slide and hammer-on solutions (green and red).

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex6

Ex 7 – 1:17 / Bar 121

A short passage of motivic development featuring organic variation upon a well defined and thus memorable original phrase (grey).

Chords punctuate the melodic line (blue) and are eventually adapted to reflect aspects of the motif’s rhythmic content (green).

Mehldau features such development throughout the main transcription so be sure to download and study in context. For more on this topic check out my free lesson ‘Gilad Hekselman – Motivic Development‘.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex7

Ex 8 – 1:48 / Bar 114

A further illustration of even 8th notes in the context of swing feel accompaniment, as introduced at Example 3.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex8

Ex 9 – 2:08 / Bar 135

Example 9 combines 3 triplet phrases (grey) separated by supporting chords (blue), as per Example 7.

Phrase 1 begins with an implied Db7 structure before resolving via a Blues-tingled E Mixolydian line to A major 7.  Note an intentionally ‘loose’ time feel across bars 2 and 3.

Phrase 2 references the arpeggio structure employed at the outset of Phrase 1, continuing the idea across a wider range. Mehldau cites a further recurring rhythmic effect, creating tension with slight hesitation before resolving to D major. Notice subsequent comping is included as counterpoint to a sustained melody note.

Phrase 3 takes the form of a snaking, often chromatic minor II-V-I descent.  Observe a chromatic approach to the 3rd of G7 (A# to B), similar to Mehldau’s resolution to A major during Phrase 1 (C to C#). A concluding sustained chord provides counterpoint to an active upper voice, as previously seen at Example 2.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex9

Ex 10 – 2:53 / Bar 183

A final triplet line containing one of Mehldau’s most recognisable vocabulary items (blue).

Beginning with a clear minor II-V-I (grey), Mehldau moves to a strong polyrhythmic motif at line 2 (blue), implying groupings of 2 over the established triplet subdivision. The 3 iterations of this idea see it contract, extend and modulate to imply G major, D minor and G minor.

Combined harmonic and rhythmic ambiguity create significant tension, which is resolved at line 3 when Mehldau substitutes A major in place of A7#9 (green) before reverting to the expected harmony, Gb/Ab (red), albeit anticipated.

Mehldau - Ron's Place Ex10

To develop your unique improvisational voice click here or to study these and other jazz improvisation techniques in more detail click here!