As a classically trained teen, Brad Mehldau was introduced to the music of Keith Jarrett setting him on the road to jazz. He did not abandon the classical genre and those influences were powerfully present in his first solo release Elegiac Cycle (1999). He has since written pieces for the Orchestre National d'Île-de-France and Carnegie Hall commissions for Anne Sofie von Otter and Renée Fleming respectively. Highway Rider is a two disc showcase of Mehldau's growth as both a composer and musician. He cites Bob Alcivar's arrangements and orchestration with Tom Waits as a major influence as occasionally heard in the shades of One From the Heart. Like that great soundtrack, this is classically influenced music but it remains jazz with strings; a difficult to categorize sub-genre and a combination that can be quicksand in the wrong hands.
Mehldau reunites here with producer Jon Brion (Largo 2002) and together they ensure that the strings were an enhancement to the jazz component and not vice versa. The mixing successfully avoids an overly sentimental atmospherethe most challenging issue in this format. The inclusion of saxophonist, Joshua Redman with Mehldau's regular trio of drummer, Jeff Ballard and bassist, FLY was insightful on several levels. As expected, Redman's dynamic and individualist style adds depth to the piano trio format, helping to put the jazz front and center. Redman was a founder and the Artistic Director of the eleven-member San Francisco Jazz Collective for several years. That large ensemble experience brings a valuable skill set to this setting as well.
Among the many highlights in this fifteen-song collection is "Don't Be Sad," a long, bluesy, boozy piece. The undulating tempo plays like a codependent relationship; it alternately beckons then repels with Redman and the strings primarily acting the parts. "We'll Cross the River Together" juxtaposes strings with improvised solos from both Mehldau and Redman. Redman's saxophone acts as a conduit for the quartet and the strings and the two distinctive forms never feel in opposition, thanks to Mehldau's arrangement. "Always Returning" is something of an overture (despite being the closing track) and gives the chamber orchestra and Mehldau their best opportunity to shine as collaborators.
There are a number of quartet-only tracks on Highway Rider and each would be a worthy contribution in any solely jazz oriented collection. Particular stand outs include, "Old West" and "Sky Turning Grey" which features a beautifully fluid solo by Redman. Little embellishments throughout the collection (hand claps, brief wordless vocals, and pump organ), provide just enough lightness without muddying the overall atmosphere. The chamber orchestra is conducted by Dan Coleman whose contribution cannot be overstated. Highway Rider is important not just for Mehldau's significant musical contribution but also because it is one of those rare and potent reminders that jazz not only thrives but continues to evolve in the hands of truly creative artists.
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.