“Highway Rider”, Revisited

by Noah Weinman ’16

Highway Rider – Brad Mehldau (2010) Nonesuch Records

Brad’s clean now. After bursting onto the scene in the early 90s and the subsequent heroin addiction, a more mature Mehldau (now 42) seems to be producing his best stuff yet. His 2012 album Ode is very good, but Highway Rider remains his most complete work and thus, worthy of a re-review.

Mehldau and his trio (Jeff Ballard on drums; Larry Grenadier on bass) are joined by Joshua Redman on sax, Matt Chamberlain on auxiliary percussion, and Dan Coleman’s chamber orchestra to craft an album unlike anything Mehldau has done before. The trio combines their signature style (overuse of odd meter, schizophrenic piano solos, and blistering musicianship) with Coleman’s luscious strings to produce an incredibly cinematic jazz experience. It is difficult to create a concept album without the words as they usually reduce to “Peter and the Wolf”-esque disasters, but Mehldau keeps things interesting. He repeats enough melodic phrases to craft “characters” without oversaturation.

One of the album’s successes is in Mehldau’s ability to write songs that allow for cooperation between the jazzers and the orchestra. It’s not so much jazz with strings, or a symphony with a little bit of jazz as it is a cohesive sound. The other success is his ability to repeat these melodies, or characters, but alter them in ways where each song is unique. If I have sold you on this album (or at the very least sparked your curiosity) and if you have the ability to listen to this album (hint: spotify or youtube) while reading the rest of this, it will be well worth the small effort.

“Don’t Be Sad” is for all purposes, a power ballad: a slow waltz with thick snare and a powerhouse sax solo that rips through the sheets of strings. The song builds to a hefty swing that will make you grit your teeth and nod your head before diving back into Mehldau’s delicate outro. The same melody takes a different form on “Highway Rider,” where Ballard channels his inner Drum&Bass-er and Mehldau frenetically pounds the keys into the swell, disrupted only by the most essential breaks. On “Sky Turning Grey” Ballard shows off some impressive hip-hop chops and Mehldau’s phrasing is really spectacular: sparse, precise, and laid back. This tune brings a nice break from the epic sagas and gives the guys a chance to relax and “kick out the jams.”

Other key tracks include “Old West” and “Come With Me.” The first of which is a duet between the album’s two superstars (Mehldau and Redman). Mehldau begins by creating waves of sound with Redman, who repeatedly reminds us here that the soprano saxophone is indeed in instrument and not the thing that spews filth out the side of Kenny G’s mouth. The two rise out of the surf with an infectious groove that brings a surprising amount of backbeat. “Come With Me” is true to the spirit of contemporary jazz: spacey chords, blanketing bass, and chattering drums. Here Redman unleashes one of his more rhythmic, soulful solos that we’ve grown to love in his solo work, fusing more gospel riffs and harnessed screeching into his playing.

With this incredibly varied, yet unified sound, Mehldau has created what ought to be heralded as one of the strongest albums of the past decade.  Give it a listen on your next walk down Middle Path, it’s guaranteed to provide a sparkling soundtrack to what may be a very mundane morning.

Other Key Tracks Not Mentioned: “The Falcon Will Fly Again” “Walking The Peak”

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