For much of his adventure in music to date, the main thrust of Brad Mehldau’s work has been involved with fostering a bold new sound in the jazz piano-trio format. His new double-disc opus, Highway Rider, the most costly Mehldau production yet, heads in a different set of directions, but with the trio—including longtime allies Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums—sometimes at the core. As in most of Mehldau’s work, which also includes solo piano and art-song projects with classical vocalists Anne Sofie von Otter and Renee Fleming, this latest effort finds Mehldau deftly mixing virtuosity, compositional fluidity and his trademark romanticism-with-an-edge.
This time out, the sonic forces involved casts of many, corralled with the enabling and creatively free-ranging help of producer Jon Brion. Bolstered by creative arrangements for strings, horns (including the French Horn, not incidentally), Highway Rider is a delayed continuation of 2002’s Largo, which Brion also produced. That album served as a kind of swan song for Mehldau’s period in Los Angeles (where he often played at the legendary club Largo).
Several years later, the sequel to the original Mehldau/Brion collaboration finds the pianist sometimes leaning into terrain we expect from Brion, with moments that echo Brion’s approach to film scoring and left-of-center arrangement ideas. In another nostalgic link, Mehldau also invites his old employer from his pre-Los Angeles days, saxophonist Joshua Redman, into the mix.
Diversity abounds here, in terms of dynamics, acoustic textures, harmonic palette and notions of genre. More thickly textured and suitelike pieces, such as the title track, “Walking the Peak” and the 12-plus minute “We’ll Cross the River Together” successfully blend grandeur and grace, whereas Mehldau, flying solo, accesses the moody waltz-maker within on “At the Tollbooth.” “The Falcon Will Fly Again” is a tastefully insistent 7/8 tune, with fervent yet focused soloing from the pianist and Redman on soprano.
Flamenco clapping drives the energetic “Capriccio,” which segues into the melancholy tinged pop groove of “Sky Turning Grey (For Elliott Smith).” Mehldau’s extant trio works out on “Into the City,” leading into the easy duet rapport of Mehldau and Redman on “Old West.”
Mehldau closes the project with a two-part flourish, the seamlessly connected “Always Departing” and “Always Returning,” which could refer to the itinerant life of the musician or the thought processes of the composer or improviser in action—or maybe both. What begins in a quasi-classical vein, with string writing swirling around a pensive piano, bumps up into feistier fettle, with the entrance of drums (art rocker Matt Chamberlain), Redman and other voices, stirring up collective heat and mystery somewhat reminiscent of Claus Ogerman’s classic 1982 project featuring Michael Brecker, Cityscape.
As if to cap off the drama with a more ruminative coda, Mehldau plays solo piano to bring the piece (and album) to a poetic denouement. All roads and arrangement trajectories lead back to the man at the middle.
What we don’t get a lot of on Highway Rider is Mehldau as freewheeling, cerebral pianist. But there will be plenty more where that came from. This project is an intriguing and generous account of Mehldau as conceptualist. He remains one of the most consistently fascinating voices in current jazz, whatever the vehicle at hand, and this album has no shortage of ideas, energy or emotional soil to till.