Pianist Brad Mehldau is known for his third-stream style, which is essentially Schumann-meets-Monk, but it's increasingly evident that he also loves to rock. Over the years, tunes by the Beatles, Nick Drake and Radiohead have appeared on his albums and concert set lists, and Mehldau has played their songs with just as much emotion and respect as he does his own compositions and those of jazz and classical masters.
It's through rock that I came to know of Mehldau. Late one night in 1999, when searching Napster's then seemingly bottomless pool of free music for Radiohead's "Paranoid Android," the search results included a live version of the song by some guy named "Brad Meldow." Curious, I downloaded it and a few minutes later was listening to a virtuoso pianist playing one of modern rock's most complex and compelling songs. I became a fan, however illegally.
Mehldau no doubt picked up many fans more accustomed to rock than jazz as a result of covering "Paranoid Android," as when he recorded Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)" on 1998's Songs, the third volume in his acoustic Art of the Trio series. Even more people who dig Radiohead should discover Mehldau as a result of his new album, Largo, and not simply because the CD finally brings us a studio recording of "Paranoid Android." Mehldau has now taken after Radiohead and experiments with sonics: freaky electronics, dueling drummers, prepared piano and who knows what all else make their way onto Largo, which defies the traditional sound of his Art of the Trio albums.
Still, for all the changes in the Mehldau sound on Largo, the pianist's mood remains intact: he gets woeful on nearly every track. The drummers, however, won't let the pianist keep the proceedings down in the dumps. Pushed to the foreground of the mix, drummers Jim Keltner, Matt Chamberlain, Victor Indrizzo and regular Mehldau sideman Jorge Rossy contribute a joyful pulse from start to finish that often draws from jazz but is just as indebted to rock, funk and electronic genres like drum 'n' bass. The presence of nonjazz beats makes sense considering Keltner and Chamberlain are multitalented session men and Indrizzo regularly backs postmodern hit-maker Beck, who refuses to settle on any one genre.
Mehldau's regular bassist, Larry Grenadier, as well as L.A.-based session man Darek Oles and electric bassist Justin Meldal-Jonsen, another friend of Beck's, are overshadowed to some degree by the powerhouse drumming, but they still provide Largo with everything from deep grooves to passages of spooky arco.
The most important ally to Mehldau on the album, however, comes in producer Jon Brion, an L.A. alt-rock scene fixture who has ample experience shaping the sounds of melancholy tunesmiths, having worked with singer-songwriter Aimee Mann and brooding songbird Fiona Apple.
Brion has a try-anything mentality. He's willing to mutate acoustic instruments with electronics, place microphones where most wouldn't dare and generally ignore every subsection and clause in the Rudy Van Gelder rulebook. It's Brion's vision that turns Mehldau's version of "Paranoid Android" from solo piano meditation on the live MP3 I swiped into an emotional epic, replete with kitchen utensil percussion and dramatic dynamic shifts. Largo's version of the tune is fully worthy of the computer-editing-happy rock band that originally wrote the song.
The CD's sequencing is a well-measured balance of heavy and soft numbers, and the divergent textures that result from Brion's bizarre studio trickery don't let songs blend into one another and create a sound-alike mush of an album. There's a welcome difference in mood between, say, the two-drummer tension of "You're Vibing Me" and the easygoing groove of "Dusty McNugget" that's been missing on previous Mehldau albums. The low notes of the pianist's frantic, spy-flickesque runs on the nervous "Free Willy" sound as if they are drowning; they must be the result of Brion's tinkering around with prepared-piano techniques.
Halfway through Largo comes a rocking curveball, "Sabbath," a dirty mix of piano, guitar and power electronics every bit as rough and repetitive as a song by metal progenitors Black Sabbath, the likely namesake for Mehldau's tune. That release of aggression gives way to a minimal and strolling "Dear Prudence," one of two Beatles songs on the album and the only track that echoes Mehldau's trio records. The other Beatles number, "Mother Nature's Son," segues from a take on Jobim's "Wave," supercharged with dance-club worthy drumming and infested with an unrelenting, intergalactic screeching sound.
Even with the added musicians and sounds, Mehldau's piano is, as it should be, the focal point of Largo. His playing remains a little sinister and sad on the CD, but he has also lightened his touch and his melodies and harmonies are refreshingly simpler this time around. Brion may have tied Mehldau's left hand behind his back during the sessions to force him to cut back, though it's more likely the pianist's style change came from not wanting to crowd the already busy sound with unnecessary augmentations and suspensions.
If Mehldau's next album has him continuing this lovely, less-is-more attitude on the ivories paired with inventive sonics and production, I might find some dark corner of our post-Napster Internet where I can download a few tracks and have a free listen. I'm kidding, of course-my reversion to a 56k dial-up Internet connection has turned me into a more honest man.