Such is the cult of the soloist in contemporary jazz that other elements of the creative equation are often overlooked. One is the sideman; the other is the producer. In the case of Highway Rider, the input of Jon Brion, in the latter role, is crucial insofar as he has made this latest release by Mehladu, the pianist greatly lauded by the critical establishment in the last 15 years, a work that stretches the artist’s conceptual scope without stifling his essence.
This is largely recognisable as a ‘Brad’ record for the customarily tremulous, at times wry stance at the keyboard. But its expansive palette of lush orchestral textures and subtle nuances of dance music, mostly a shadowy 4hero-style drum’n’bass, bespeaks a bigger conversation with Brion on how to reach beyond jazz parameters while avoiding any obtuse forays into ‘fusion’. This is something the pair first did quite enticingly on 2002’s Largo. Spread over two discs, this new work is possibly Mehldau’s epic or saga-like statement, something appropriate for this middle stage of his career, and the appearance of the orchestra on every couple of tracks to augment Mehldau’s trio – bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard are joined by another drummer, Matt Chamberlain and tenor/soprano saxophonist Joshua Redman – is a rich bonding agent among the assemblage of sonic building materials.
The use of the brooding, muted tonalities of French horn or bassoon among the evanescent strings provides smart support to the band, and occasionally the slurred motifs evoke an eerie bandoneon in a very haunted tango. In fact, there is a considerable melancholy, almost like a dark cloud that constantly threatens to break, floating over the whole set and the icier, stark harmonies of some of the strings vaguely evoke Ramsey Lewis’s 60s work with Charles Stepney.
Then again, Highway Rider is a concept album with an odyssey-like subtext. It is not a ‘chops’ fest where the solo is the song, but a work where the song is the song. Good producers are vital to this kind of endeavour, so credit where it’s due. --Kevin Le Gendre
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