Music review: Brad Mehldau’s ‘Highway Rider’ at Walt Disney Concert Hall
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Maybe we need another term to describe the project Brad Mehldau brought to Disney Hall on Friday night.
Teaming the jazz pianist with nearly the same chamber orchestra that helped bring his ambitious 2010 double-album ‘Highway Rider’ to life, the project certainly lies at a crossroads between classical and jazz (in the liner notes, Mehldau describes the album as pursuing a ‘Beethovenian kind of expression’). But watching the album come alive amid a mix of orchestral sweep and up to five gifted improvisers at its core, it’s hard not to wonder if the results of Mehldau’s vision can be summarized so easily.
Spanning all but two songs from the 15-track ‘Highway Rider’ in sequence, the show began somewhat tentatively with ‘John Boy’ as Mehldau played off a murmured bed of hand percussion and brushes from his trio’s drummer, Jeff Ballard, and crafty session vet Matt Chamberlain. As saxophonist Joshua Redman came to the forefront on the melancholy ‘Don’t Be Sad,’ the audience seemed unsure whether it was allowed to clap after his solo built to a wickedly bluesy climax that worked both with and against its swirling backdrop of strings.
But for all of the notice the orchestral accompaniment earned on ‘Highway Rider,’ it’s not generally the music’s focal point. Introduced by Mehldau early in the evening as ‘our protagonist of the story,’ Redman nearly stole the show a few times, once with an excitably trilling solo on soprano saxophone over the rollicking ‘The Falcon Will Fly Again’ and again on ‘Walking the Peak’ heading into the intermission, where Redman’s turn on tenor marked by occasional gruff honks and bleats punctuated the song’s switch from its orchestral opening to the nearly tribal patter of Ballard and Chamberlain’s twin drumkits.
During many of the evening’s smaller ensemble moments, the performance showed ‘Highway RIder’s’ roots in Mehldau’s rock-tilted 2002 recording ‘Largo,’ which also featured some of the same players as well as the production talents of the L.A. club’s eclectic patron saint, Jon Brion. After touching on genre-blind flourishes such as the stuttering drum-and-bass groove on of ‘Into the City’ and a warmly percolating battery of handclaps and tambourine anchoring the joyful piano showcase ‘Capriccio,’ Mehldau remarked that much of the journey-themed ‘Highway Rider’ was rooted in the years he spent in Los Angeles listening to music and riding its freeways.
Yet for all the orchestral grandeur conductor Scott Yoo provided both at the night’s fringes and at its center, as on the dramatic swells of the two-part set closer ‘Always Departing/Always Returning,’ the night’s highlight came at one of its most scaled-down moments. In the immersive ‘Old West,’ Redman and Mehldau squared off with the saxophonist darting around Mehldau’s chunky piano chords with an ever-increasing abandon as the crowd lost any doubt as to whether it could applaud. As the song turned back to Mehldau, he bent its central melody into a funhouse mirror of ugly beauty before Redman returned to slice through Mehldau’s stormy chords. It wasn’t classical-jazz, jazz-pop or some other hyphenated hybrid. It was just a great ride.
-- Chris Barton