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Album review: Brad Mehldau's 'Highway Rider'

March 15, 2010 |  6:23 pm

Brad-Mehldau_240  Let it never be said that Brad Mehldau lacks ambition. The gifted pianist and composer's latest is a reunion with über-producer Jon Brion and percussion gadfly Matt Chamberlain, who joined Mehldau's trio on 2002's eclectic "Largo." But instead of re-creating that record's arresting, electronics-flecked sound, Mehldau has upped the ante by teaming with saxophonist Joshua Redman and a full orchestra for a sprawling, two-disc travelogue of sorts that might be his most fully realized work yet.

Though primarily a jazz artist, Mehldau is no stranger to classical, recently collaborating with Orchestre National d'Île de France and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. And while there's plenty of gorgeous orchestral sweep involved, such as the dramatic "Always Departing," what's striking is how much the album feels like two disciplines on equal footing. For the most part -- most notably on the 12-minute mini-epic "We'll Cross the River Together" -- Mehldau and Redman engage a battery of horns, strings and percussion in a lively conversation, a byproduct of the record's emphasis on live recording.

Though Mehldau lists Strauss and Beethoven as among this record's touchstones, its closely cropped moments leave some of the greatest impressions. Against Mehldau's acrobatic piano, a pattering hand-clap rhythm lends a raw intimacy to "Capriccio," and after a scene-stealing soprano saxophone solo from Redman, an unexpectedly playful chorus of la-la-las lights up "The Falcon Will Fly Again." 

A simmering, searching duet between Redman and Mehldau on "Old West" is another highlight, as is Mehldau's teaming with usual trio mates Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, who revisit some of the twitchy, drum-and-bass drive of "Largo" with "Into the City." Full of unexpected twists and lush, evocative detours, "Highway Rider" is most definitely a trip, and one well worth taking.

-- Chris Barton 

Brad Mehldau
"Highway Rider"
Four stars (Out of four)