For jazz music fans, Brad Mehldau needs no introduction. Known for his ability to play different melodies simultaneously with separate hands, Mehldau is probably one of the most popular contemporary jazz pianists. Although I've been a fan of jazz since I was a kid, I became familiar with Mehldau's music only three years ago, when his (then) new album Modern Music was released. The first song I heard from that album was Mehldau's cover of Philip Glass's (who happens to be among my favorite classical music composers) String Quartet #5. Modern Music is an album that mixes contemporary classical music with jazz, but this is not the first album of Mehldau's that mixes classical music and jazz. Mehldau has a strong background in classical music and this is displayed well on his album Highway Rider.
This album breathes, it is bluesy, tender, sweet-sounding and at the same time it is gradually building tension while offering dramatic grandeur. The album is supposed to be a continuation of Mehldau's 2002 album Largo, however it is nothing like Largo. There is less experimentation on Highway Rider, the album is more structured and is more similar to Mehldau's Art of the Trio volumes. It is also nothing like his latest albums, which are also more experimental. This album has no sharp edges, it is soft and smooth flowing.
Highway Rider is a collaboration between Brad Mehldau and producer Jon Brion, it features a chamber orchestra led by Dan Coleman. Mehldau's long-time trio partners bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard also appear on the album along with saxophonist Joshua Redman and drummer Matt Chamberlain. The songs and orchestration are all written by Mehldau himself. What makes the album so great is that the orchestra and jazz quintet were recorded together. This fact makes improvisations sound more original and immediate but also contributes to the general atmosphere. The rich harmonic palette offered by the chamber orchestra gives the music intensity and lyricism.
Highway Rider sounds nostalgic. There is a certain familiarity in it. This is probably due to the fact that Mehldau uses musicians he's worked with before. Nostalgia can be heard for example in Old West, which is a duet between Joshua Redman and Mehldau These two have been playing together since the beginning of 1990s. Redman's own 2013 album Walking Shadows that features several of Mehldau's compositions has a similar lyrical and romantic vibe about it as Highway Rider. However, nostalgia is not the only thing Redman brings to the table. He brings in intensity, dissonance, complexity, grace and simplicity. This makes the album varied and full of wonderful contradictions.
Another familiar feature is the prevalent use of Mehldau's trio. The album starts with the song John Boy, where the orchestra and Redman color the song with woodwinds and brass but the trio is what remains central. Into the City is played out only by the trio. The song is more similar to Mehldau's latest compositions but also has a sense of Pat Metheny, with whom Mehldau has worked for years, in it. While the orchestra delivers the classical element to the album, the trio mixes in the pure jazz ingredient.
Don't Be Sad and At the Tollbooth would be perfect for listening on an autumn evening. The soft dynamics make the songs poetic, melodious and warm. These songs could easily be on the soundtrack of a French film. The Falcon Will Fly Again is probably the most fun song on the album with its 7/8 time signature. Redman on soprano sax reminds me of Paul McCandless of Oregon. The Falcon Will Fly Again has a hidden gem in the end: the fast-paced song suddenly stops in the middle and turns into another brilliant piece. Energetic flamenco handclapping is what drives the song Capriccio, which does not really sound like something Mehldau would write.. It has a hint of Avishai Cohen in it.
Highway Rider and Sky Turning Grey [For Elliott Smith] (the latter actually happens to be my own personal favorite from this album) are the ones that reveal the multifaceted artistry of Brad Mehldau. Highway Rider makes use of his wonderful ability to play two distinct melodies with each of his hands and Sky Turning Grey is where Mehldau shows off his improvisational skills. The descending bass gives Mehldau's solo intensity without making the melody complex. On composing for chamber orchestra and building improvisation on theme, Mehldau himself has said that "an improvised solo will express the intense, heightened subjectivity of the individual musician, reacting in real time to what he or she hears and feels. Jazz soloing, no matter how cohesively it fits with the music that surrounds it, is always for me a disruption of sorts: the best solos express an alluring incongruity with whatever given order there is".
The chamber orchestra makes this album different from any other Mehldau album. If the songs Always Departing or Now You Must Climb Alone would be the first ones you listen to, you might think that you've bought the wrong album. According to Mehldau, these songs were influenced by Strauss's configuration of 23 strings. Both songs are more modern classical than modern jazz. Both of the songs also connect to the next piece. Always Returning is a continuation of Always Departing and Now You Must Climb Alone smoothly turns into Walking the Peak. Now You Must Climb Alone/Walking the Peak is chaotic and avoids traditional diatonic harmony with ambiguous chords. The jazz ensemble only comes in in Walking the Peak, however, the dissonance continues and while the piece ends in tonic, it never really resolves in a satisfying way. Always Departing/Always Returning sounds like an eclectic, dramatic modern classical piece that makes a full circle from start to finish. Always Departing starts with strings and Always Returning ends with strings. The ending is soft, full of nostalgia and full of melancholy, it brings the whole album together, it is a conclusion that meshes the album into a single entity.
The attractive themes, subtle mood shifts and varied orchestral textures make Highway Rider a splendid example of what a contemporary jazz album should be like. It is perfect for a jazz music enthusiast but also excellent for a jazz novice. I would definitely NOT say that jazz has degenerated. There is nothing "Kenny G-esque" in such contemporary jazz artists and groups as Wynton Marsalis, Aaron Parks, Till Brönner, Tigran Hamasyan, Joshua Redman, Branford Marsalis, Chris Potter, Pat Metheny Group, Tingvall Trio, Triosence and the list could go on and on. Jazz now is just as diverse as it has always been.
– Susanna Soosaar