With the new Highway Rider, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau shows there’s no reason to be afraid of a tender melody.
The superlatives attach like burrs to Brad Mehldau, and they grow heavier with each record. The pianist is the last best hope of jazz. A smart, nimble-fingered visionary. A provocative composer who is developing rapidly.
This is no accident. Mehldau has been willing to try stuff, and explore, in bolder strokes and on larger canvases than most of his peers. Though he’s released a bunch of records – some would say too many featuring his trio – he has been careful to vary his endeavors, alternating between live documents and ambitious works like the current 2-disc Highway Rider, a project for quartet and studio orchestra that reunites him with Jon Brion, the wizard who produced Mehldau’s landmark Largo.
That’s just smart career planning. There’s also something more fundamentally musical at work: Unlike Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus and others currently in the jazz spotlight, Mehldau is not allergic to pretty melodies or moments of sublime-bordering-on-blissed-out consonance. Born in 1970, Mehldau has famously covered tunes written by the Beatles, British folk avatar Nick Drake and the rock trailblazers Radiohead. The Bad Plus works similar turf, but Mehldau’s treatments arrive fully baked: Everything he does springs from evident reverence for the melodies – rather than impose his own logic, his flights embrace and reflect the logic of the tune.
Hearing Mehldau’s recent compositions, there’s the sense that he’s “gone to school” on the pop song. He’s internalized the compact structures of pop, absorbed the melodic graces and harmonic cadences, assimilated the schemes of tension and release. The work’s sparkling moments, like the wistful “Come With Me” and the Elliott Smith homage “Sky Turning Grey,” show that Mehldau has integrated this stuff with the rest of his already formidible vocabulary: Lilting, Badfinger-esque piano reveries morph into superfast bebop chase scenes, then broken chords suggesting waterlily impressionism, then assymetrical knots of complex, defiantly tangled dissonance.
Crucially, none of these moments feel like tricks, or contrivances. Like a thoughtful singer-songwriter who worries that production tricks may overtake his message, Mehldau gravitates toward what the piece needs, not what he as an improvisor needs to “prove” within the piece. This humility helps make his solos deeply moving, and remarkably accessible: Where some jazz players use abstraction as a kind of sheild, Mehldau is not afraid to let a simple declarative melody ring, to follow an impossibly sweet line to its endpoint, to share something of his spirit as he navigates the open road.