Brad Mehldau - Highway Rider

Album review. Brad Mehldau's second exploration of orchestral jazz and his most ambitious to date.>


Release date: March 16th 2010

Recorded at Oceon Way Studios, LA

Availability: CD, MP3 Download

 Brad Mehldau: Highway Rider cover

'Highway Rider' is Brad Mehldau's second exploration of orchestral jazz and his most ambitious to date.

The history of jazz meets classical orchestration is a checkered one at best. In 'Charlie Parker with Strings' or John McLaughlin's 'Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra' with the London Symphony Orchestra, the classical appendages largely get in the way of the jazz.

Brad Mehldau had come closest to this approach in 2002 with his album 'Largo' when he had worked with producer Jon Brion. When Brad Mehldau thought of going further with the orchestral approach, he decided to work with him again and to record this new music as much as possible as a live perfomance:

'I knew from working with Jon on 'Largo' that he was the guy who would find a way to put all the pieces together for this project. It was really quite a beast sonically at some points-two drummers playing at the same time, bass, sax, and piano, and then the orchestra on top of that. I wanted to record everything live whenever possible but wasn't sure if we could do it. The first conversation with Jon about the music, that was for him a done deal - it had to be live, with the orchestra and the jazz group playing together. Jon had the foresight during the recording, and then a great deal of craft during the mixing, to bring it all together and sound like it does. And we were able to avoid what the conductor Dan Coleman jokingly referred to as 'disco strings' that is, adding the orchestra onto the jazz group's performance after the fact.'

So, first and foremost, 'Highway Rider', a double CD, is conceived as more than jazz with strings. The core band - Brad Mehldau (piano), Jeff Ballard/ Matt Chamberlain (drums), Larry Grenadier (bass), Joshua Redman (tenor saxophone) – is seen as part of a wider soundscape.

As Brad Mehldau explains in this Nonesuch EPK from YouTube:

The problem of how to deal with the orchestration was a major one:

'For me, the biggest challenge was the orchestration; which notes to assign to what instruments. I've been studying lots of orchestral scores for a while now - Strauss, Brahms, Tchaikovsky; a lot of big romantic stuff in particular. But while I was writing, I was also listening closely to modern orchestrators and arrangers, and there are two who have made an impact on me especially François Rauber in his work with Jacques Brel, and Bob Alcivar in his work with Tom Waits.'

You could accept the Tom Waits but the Jacques Brel would almost certainly be a romantic ballad too far for most jazz enthusiasts.

Neverthelss, this is an avenue that Brad Mehldau seems keen to explore. In recent years he has written and scored the orchestral piece 'The Brady Bunch Variations' for the Orchestre National d'Île-de-France and two Carnegie Hall commissions - 'Love Songs' for mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and 'Love Sublime' for soprano Renée Fleming.

There is much great music on 'Highway Rider' and the impact of Joshua Redman in introducing an unwavering jazz perspective is an undeniable asset. Time will tell if this ambitious work overcomes the experience of Charlie Parker, John McLaughlin and so many jazz greats for whom the meeting with classical orchestra was a gig too far.

However, Brad Mehldau does seem to have made progress beyond that point. He uses the woodwind passages to great effect and leaves enough of the basic jazz trio in place to retain this as an anchor. And on release the double CD has gone straight to the top of the jazz album charts.

Very much worth checking out.

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