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Brad Mehldau Highway Rider Live at Carnegie Hall

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Brad Mehldau / The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra
Carnegie Hall
New York, New York
November 9, 2010

Zankel Hall was rife with anticipation before pianist Brad Mehldau took the stage, along with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, to debut his recently released Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010) live in New York, and rightly so. Highway Rider is Mehldau's first formal foray into the world of orchestral jazz, and to read the self-composed notes in the playbill, it seemed the pianist took this music as seriously as did the New York jazz cognoscenti in attendance. It was only after he playfully introduced the orchestra as "this bad-assed ensemble behind me," that the palpable tension within the room was eased a bit.

But really, there was nothing to worry about. Mehldau, in fine form throughout, ran through the entire the album, backed by the orchestra and a small jazz ensemble consisting of saxophonist Joshua Redman), bassist FLY, and drummers/percussionists Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain—the same lineup present on the album. But live, there was an urgency, and a power not present on record. Live, the importance of silence revealed itself. Live, the audience was able to fully comprehend the great emotion behind Mehldau's compositions, and connect the dots in a circular journey about journeys (Highway Rider is about travel, according to Mehldau).

The music on Highway Rider is as Mehldau-ian as ever, consisting of simple riffs whose beauty is underscored by the pianist's sweet, thoughtful tension-and-release style. And, like other Mehldau releases, this is not a traditional jazz album, but rather a whole piece of music played by a collective. The riffs are returned to again and again, but solos are relatively rare.

Mehldau made effective use of the orchestra, mostly to add to the power of his trio + 2; while the orchestra was featured at times, it only truly shone its full force during a couple of strong Redman solos.

Speaking of Redman, he was a revelation throughout. His saxophone served as the voice of the protagonist, and his ability to play only those notes necessary to the telling of the story was remarkable. He shone on both tenor and soprano, adding light touches at times and letting loose the full fury of his tone at others.

Chamberlain and Ballard were also revelatory, each contributing something different. Ballard is as malleable as any drummer, and whether on percussion or kit, he was able to subtly alter the dynamics of a piece and guide the soloist through the oftentimes challenging changes. Chamberlain, on the other hand, was the master of groove on this night, contributing the perfect drum beat to underscore and complete the contributions of the orchestra.

Mehldau was brilliant as ever—though quite understated—throughout. While he was fully capable of bursts and flurries of notes, the pianist always seemed to be relaxed and purposefully restrained on the bench.

This was an extremely high-level concert, with brilliance at almost every turn. Never truly in-your-face, the music was open to interpretation, and, indeed, Mehldau proposed several different meanings in his introductions to the songs. While becoming familiar with the material to be played in advance of a concert is often recommended, in this case the opposite was true, as the performance provided a fuller understanding of the meaning of Highway Rider than hearing it on record ever could.

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