For a pianist who not only demonstrated remarkable promise, but actually began delivering on it at a very early stage in his career with what would ultimately become his five-part Art of the Trio
(Warner Bros.) series, Brad Mehldau's side projects havewith the exception of the solo Live in Tokyo
(Nonesuch, 2004)met with mixed reactions. Perhaps it's because of his emergence as one of modern jazz's most distinctive and popular interpreters of both contemporary song and standard material in a trio setting, that placed unfair expectations on seemingly tangential projects like the concept-based Places
(Warner Bros, 2000). The unexpected diversion of Largo
(Warner Bros., 2002), in particular, was met with some curiosity as, for the first time, Mehldau expanded into larger musical environselectrified territories, evenwith acclaimed producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion (Kanye West, Robyn Hitchcock, Aimee Mann). Highway Rider
reunites Mehldau with Brion for an album that's even more ambitious than Largo
and, despite their first collaboration's many strong points, a far more successful one.
Mehldau's recent work writing for orchestraThe Brady Bunch Variations
for Orchestre Natonal D'Îsle-de-France, and the song-cycle Love Sublime
(Nonesuch, 2006), with soprano René Fleming, amongst othershas clearly given Mehldau the confidence to find, with Highway Rider
, a nexus point where form-based improvisation and through-composition meet. Based around the preexisting chemistry of his regular trio with bassist FLY
and drummer Jeff Ballard
, but expanding to a quintet with longtime friend Joshua Redman
on saxophones and, back from Largo
, drummer Matt Chamberlain, Highway Rider
is a double-disc suite that's as much a soundtrack to an imaginary film as anything Mehldau's ever done.
It's also the most fully realized original music the pianist has written to date, as unequivocally American
as Aaron Copland, Bill Frisell
and Pat Metheny
, despite citing the influence of European Romantics like Strauss, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, in addition to more eclectic sources. Mehldau's voice as a composer has been gradually emerging with original music contributed to trio recordings like Live
(Nonesuch, 2008) and House on Hill
(Nonesuch, 2006), but with Highway Rider
, Mehldau the composer has clearly arrived.
What distances Highway Rider
from stereotypical (and often saccharine) "jazz with strings" projectswith Dan Coleman leading a chamber orchestra on much of the discis the sense of immediacy that Brion has achieved by recording the orchestra and jazz quintet togetherone of Mehldau's original goals for the project. This isn't a jazz quintet blowing and an orchestra then layered over top; this is fully integrated music, where the soloing is as spontaneous as it needs to be, even when the orchestra creates a firm and fixed foundation. Mehldau's solo on the first half of "We'll Cross the River Together" builds to an idiosyncratic, block chord-driven climax, but it's his orchestration which turns this relatively simple, repeating set of eight chords into a masterful tour de force that's not only one of Highway Rider
's most dramatic moments, but one that then resolves into one of its most tender interludes. A second half, with gradually building tension from the strings and the turbulent double-drumming of Ballard and Chamberlain, leads to a second climax of equal strength, this time courtesy of Redman.
As lush as Mehldau's orchestration is throughout Highway Rider
, he knows how to create a narrative arc through dynamics and breaking the ensemble down. "Capriccio" starts with nothing more than pianothough, as ever, Mehldau's virtuosity leads to the belief that it's being played by two hands until an emergent melody makes it clear he's playing it with only one. Hand percussionquite literally, with clapping driving much of the tuneand Redman's soprano develop the theme until Mehldau takes over for a brief but quirky solo, sounding not unlike Oregon
in instrumentation, but absolutely unlike it in Mehldau's voicings, which turn another deceptively simple, descending four-chord structure into something else entirely. Similarly, "The Falcon Will Fly Again," a longer piece but, again, with drastically reduced instrumentation, leads from lengthy piano and saxophone solos to a theme sung by members of the group and The Fleurettes, and an ending that dissolves into some relaxed banter amongst the group that makes it clear that as serious as much of this music sounds, it's being made by a group of people who are having fun
Sonically, Highway Rider
bears some resemblance to Largo
, in particular Mehldau's use of pump organ, synth and orchestral bells on certain tracks, but it feels somehow more natural and better integrated this time around. Perhaps the more focused compositional approach of the album makes its expanded use of texture work more naturally.
Despite breaks between songs, the music flows and feels like a continuous suite, and is certainly best experienced as such. The folkloric piano solo, "At the Tollbooth," acts as a brief interlude between the slower-tempo of "Don't Be Sad," with hints of gospel driving its form, and the title track, a more propulsive trio tune with subtle aural enhancements creating a soft cushion beneath Mehldau's extended solo. "Into the City" also narrows the focus down to Mehldau's trio, with Grenadier doubling, alternately, the pianist's left and right hands on a knotty, riff-based tune that may reduce the album's broader textural expanse, but demonstrates just how vibrant and progressive this working trio is, with Ballard almost literally on fire.
As Mehldau combines in-the-moment playing with carefully structured form, and repeated chordal and melodic motifs that continue to resurface throughout Highway Rider
's 100 minutes, the album builds to a climax on "Always Returning," before ending on a softer, tone-poem note that incorporates Mehldau's inherent classicism and somehow, on repeated listens, brings Highway Rider
full circle. The music may bear no real resemblance to it, but in scope Highway Rider
is Mehldau's Secret Story
(Nonesuch, 1992), a fan favorite for Pat Metheny and a milestone in terms of ambition and scope until the guitarist reached a new level with The Way Up
(Nonesuch, 2005) and, most recently, Orchestrion
It's no coincidence, then, that Mehldau and his trio collaborated with Metheny on Metheny Mehldau
(Nonesuch, 2006) and Quartet
(Nonesuch, 2007). That the pianist's overall career choicefocusing largely as he has on solo and trio workshas been almost diametrically opposed to Metheny's greater compositional ambitions and orchestrations seems somehow less so now, with the release of Highway Rider
. In its almost perfect mix of form and freedom, Highway Rider
manages to be both Mehldau's most personal and
most broad-scoped album to date, and surely one that will remain a classic amongst his discography, no matter what's to come.
CD1: John Boy; Don't Be Sad; At the Tollbooth; Highway Rider; The Falcon Will Fly Again; Now You Must Climb Alone; Walking the Peak. CD2: We'll Cross the River Together; Capriccio; Sky Turning Grey (For Elliott Smith); Into the City; Old West; Come With Me; Always Departing; Always Returning.