Someone once said that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. That saying seems to have a particular relevance to this latest release from Brad Mehldau.
I should begin by stating that I'm a long-time Mehldau fan and I'm generally well disposed to his explorations beyond the confines of his regular trio. Lately though, I've been finding his recorded output rather less interesting. This most recent cd feels as if it may have been conceived as a concept, though having listened to it a few times I'm left wondering what the motivation for making it was. I'm guessing that Mehldau wanted to try his hand at several things such as exploring the possibilities of working with a larger sound palette, and allowing himself a greater compositional freedom. These are admirable and understandable motivations for an artist at the point in their career that Mehldau has reached. However, it doesn't quite work for the listener.
Generally, I like Mehldau's compositions - I think 'House on Hill' is an outstanding disc of all-Mehldau material. However, the compositions on 'Highway Rider' are too baggy and rather lacking in pace and dynamics. This is compounded by the orchestration which, rather than embellishing them, seems to further sap the energy from the tunes. Also, the assignment of certain themes and melodies to particular orchestral instruments often leaves them sounding fairly trite. If you want an example of how it can all work beautifully, then try John Scofield's excellent disc 'Quiet' or Kenny Wheeler's 'Other People'. I can't help feeling that a producer other than Brion might have challenged some of these tendencies. However, as someone else has noted in their review here, Brion's production is itself rather flat and strange sounding. The result is that it all feels like a bit of a joyless plod.
Given all I've said above, I find I do keep listening to 'Highway Rider'. Maybe I'm travelling hopefully along with Brad? Not a total turkey then, but certainly not an outright triumph either.