Brad Mehldau: “Highway Rider” (Review)

I usually see it with lots of prejudice when musicians known for (and experienced with) work with small groups (like a rock or jazz combo) decide to work with a large ensemble, maybe even a symphonic orchestra. The reason for that is both theoretical and empirical: composing and arranging for a guitar/bass/drums trio simply works differently than writing the score for a big orchestra. It requires specific skills, as well as compositions suited specifically for the orchestral arrangement. And as a direct consequence, the examples of jazz or rock musicians working convincingly with orchestras are very rare: Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” or Frank Zappa’s “London Symphony Orchestra” may serve as examples. The vast majority however simply suck (such as Metallica’s “S&M”), and that for a simple reason. Take the Metallica example: this is basically a set of well-crafted tunes written for a heavy metal quartet where afterwards another arranger put some strings and horns on top. Quite the contrary, the Zappa example above contained compositions written specifically with an orchestra in mind, and adding the facts that Zappa already had gathered quite an experience working with orchestras (e.g. on 200 Motels) and that he didn’t exactly try and have the orchestra perform rock tunes did help, too.

This is why I didn’t know what to expect from Brad Mehldau’s latest release, the double CD “Highway Rider”. In addition to Mehldau’s jazz piano trio and saxophonist Joshua Redman (with whom Mehldau had already collaborated extensively), this release features an orchestra. More of a chamber orchestra, but still, there’s strings and woodwinds, and there’s definitely more than the three instruments Mehldau is known for. Will this work?

Mehldau seems to avoid the question at first – the opening tune “John Boy” starts off with soft hand drums and the piano stating the catchy theme of the track. Only one minute into the song, the orchestra (or rather the winds) start, and they immediately feel out of place. What is the reason – is it that the orchestral parts seem to drag in timing (which may be a result of a problem during overdubs), or that the reverb space of the orchestra doesn’t work well with that of the piano, or is it a problem of the composition? We leave that question to be answered later.

The slower-paced “Don’t Be Sad” shows a different picture. Here, the orchestra is merely used as a gentle backdrop for that ballad, which features Joshua Redman on sax. Further progressing into the track, the orchestra has some lead moments, like a cleverly arranged disharmonic homophonous passage played by the strings which wouldn’t have worked at all being played on the piano.

During the continuing track list, which contains tracks which only feature the orchestra, as well as piano solo, trio or quartet tracks, the impression I got on the first few tracks continually manifests: while I was wrong to doubt Mehldau’s skill in writing for a chamber orchestra, I was right to doubt that it wouldn’t work with a  chamber orchestra together with a jazz group. The highlights of the album are tracks (or portions of tracks)  which either feature the jazz trio or quartet (perhaps with some slight orchestral additions) or the orchestra alone (maybe with the addition of Redman’s sax as a lead voice). Examples of the former include “Into The City” (the only real uptempo track on the album) and “Old West” which has Mehldau almost playing up a full orchestral arrangement on the piano in the middle section, as well as a beautiful soprano sax performance by Redman. Another item in that realm would be “Cappricio”, which has a theme performed by a small woodwind section, but apart from that has only some handclap percussion and Mehldau and Redman trading solos. An example of the latter is “Now You Must Climb Alone” – an odd choice of title for a track which features the orchestra indeed – painting a very capturing sonic imagery. Most disturbing in this context is the track “We’ll Cross The River Together”, which features both beautiful orchestral arrangements (check out the ending with the bassoon adding the passive theme) and nice piano parts, but combining the trio with the orchestra almost makes you want to turn off the track.

I noticed it already before, but what I’m really unhappy with is the sound engineering on this one. The only instruments that sound convincing are Mehldau’s piano and the upright of Larry Grenadier – perhaps with some reservations also Redman’s soprano sax, at least in the small group passages. The rest comes with unfitting reverb, dynamics, and lacks proper level balance. It’s a pity that such a big project gets pulled down by such relatively simple things.

Finally, I’d like to mention the package and cover art. Sporting a three-folded package with the CDs slinding into the cardboard sleeves, as does the extensive booklet, the product is both practical (no plastic parts which will break anyway) and optically appealing, and so this album may be seen as one of the few reasons why CDs cannot yet be replaced entirely by digital downloads.
Can I recommend this album? Hard to say. Definitely so if you’re a dedicated Mehldau fan. His tasteful piano playing and also the melodic quality of his compositions are present here as anywhere. If on the other hand you’re looking for good examples of large-ensemble jazz playing, I’d rather recommend checking out some of the prime examples of typical big band artists, which depending on your stilistic preferences may be any of Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Sun Ra or George Gruntz – and at the same time get one of Mehldau’s other album, one recommendation from me would be “Live”, which also has Mehldau shine as an arranger of rock music for jazz trio.

Brad Mehldau: “Highway Rider” (2010).
Brad Mehldau Trio, Joshua Redman, Matt Chamberlain.
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dan Coleman.

Nonesuch Records.

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