Brad Mehldau: “Highway Rider”
I’m not sure how much Brad Mehldau and Miles Davis share in common, but I will say this: With Highway Rider, the pianist has made his Sketches of Spain, an orchestral song cycle that enlivens classical music with the improvisational spirit of jazz, finding its footing in folk music and caressing the edges of pop. It’s an audacious work, and it’s executed gracefully: Mehldau’s vision unfolds slowly and purposefully over two discs, and it’s every bit as conceptual as his Elegiac Cycle but also more song-oriented; it’s a musical travelogue in which recurring themes provide a narrative frame, but individual episodes and scenes make up the record’s most rewarding moments. Mehldau’s Gil Evans figure is producer Jon Brion, collaborating with Mehldau for the second time. Their first effort, Largo, is a highly influential work, but this one’s much better, partly because Mehldau came to the sessions with a more substantial batch of songs, and partly because Brion doesn’t prod the pianist toward forced experimentation so much as he gently coaxes Mehldau into forward-thinking ingenuity and resourcefulness, like when Mehldau switches from his piano to Brion’s pump organ in “Don’t Be Sad,” to strangely stirring effect. Brion also proves adept at getting the most out of talented musicians: I love the nervous, pacing percussion he employs from Jeff Ballard in the opening song, but it’s merely a trifle compared to the outstanding sax work from Joshua Redman, who brings sweet gospel and soul to his solos and lifts this introspective work into something exhilarating and transcendent. All things told, this is a major statement from a composer and musician who has been doing great work for some time now, but has arguably made his most ambitious and successful music here.