Brad Mehldau performed the world premiere of Highway Rider at the Walker last night before a very sold out and attentive crowd. Known primarily for his work in small jazz ensembles, Mehldau transcribed and performed his latest piece with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, a 35+ piece company conducted by Scott Yoo. Taking what was initially an hour and a half exercise in jazz moderation and turning it into an intense achievement of orchestral integration, Mehldau and the SPCO fascinated the audience with a two-hour musical journey
As the title of the show (and the album of the same name) would imply, Highway Rider is a concept loosely based around journeying the open road. Not quite Kerouac in its focus, Mehldau left much of his composition open-ended, with only the titles and a single recurring musical theme to suggest some sense of cohesion between the pieces. Mehldau’s approach to the affair was refreshing and, in a few cases, rollicking. The piece seemed to play cat and mouse between breezy, laid back, open-top jazz and heavier, more daring crescendos. Joshua Redman, a revelation on the alto and tenor saxophones, cut the balance between the two themes perfectly. At times quiet, subdued and playful, at other times full and robust, his solos were easily the high points of any track they appeared in. Mehldau started the evening with a soothing introduction from his piano and hand percussion work from Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain keeping opening track ‘John Boy’ feeling light and airy. Redman cut a somewhat cleaner line through the air, with ambling notes backed by a quartet of French horns and an inviting oboe from the orchestra. This would not last, though, as the central quintet took over playing duties while the orchestra was rendered mute. Mehldau and Redman took turns carrying the melody while the rhythm section carried it along with innovative arrangements. Only on ‘Now You Must Climb Alone’ and ‘Walking the Peak’, the final two songs of act one, does the story come into focus. Beginning with overtly melancholy tones and leading the audience into despairing territory, the piece moved slowly before building into a frenetic release of unexpected grandeur.
If the first act of the night was defined by pleasant melodies with expected dynamic shifts and straightforward storytelling, the second revolved around the unexpected. Shifts in dynamic were common, as overpowering and rich, sweeping movements would quickly become delicate piano outros. The most impressive track was ‘Into the City’, an 8-minute exercise in rhythmic virtuosity. Composed of only Mehldau on keys, Larry Grenadier on upright bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, the song depended on exhaustive playing from Ballard. Keeping a torrid percussive swing over the work, Ballard’s staccato restraint was maddening. Not to be outdone, Grenadier poured over his bass, swinging his body from the top of his instrument all the way to the ground. Mehldau, as expected, had a firm grip over the material. His steady and rolling piano provided the melody to what had to be an exhausting workout.
Turning what was an exciting and visually stunning tour de force, the orchestra quickly moved in with the mournfully slow, descending progressions of ‘Come With Me’. Building from this elegiac, Warren Ellis-type arrangement to a cathartic crest of pitched violas, churning strings and demagogical chimes, the work was a stunning example of how the incorporation of the orchestra turned Mehldau’s original five-piece composition into a transcendent slice of sublime. It was truly a moment to savor.
Interestingly, for a work of art that relied so heavily on a closely knit jazz quintet and controlled catharsis ended with that same ensemble looking on at the orchestra for the last five or so minutes. I was expecting Mehldau and Redman to lead out, but instead the climax was a single, sustained chord from the orchestra. It was a beautiful moment, and succinctly ended the evening with a wash of enveloping warmth.
The evening was filled with every harbinger of great, cutting edge jazz: Epic run time, virtuosic and thrilling solos, conceptual themes, despair and enlightenment, creativity and innovation. While Mehldau’s use of the SPCO was essential to the performance’s success, it wasn’t defined by it. Mr. Yoo’s elegent conduction was vital and I found myself yearning for more from his troupe, but the focus had to remain on the featured quintet. Most jazz ensembles have a single, frustratingly binding flaw: Convention in unconvention. They attempt to separate themselves by being daring and innovative, even at the expense of their music and audience. Brad Mehldau and the 35 musicians assembled at the Maguire Theatre last night flew against that ideal, and in so doing created a magical work of majestic grace that pleased every ear it fell upon without sacrificing any artistic integrity.