A feature in the March Downbeat on the classical influence in Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider fails to mention one thing: his previous recording. Conceived under producer Jon Brion, Largo was a turning point in Mehdau’s style, showcasing different instrumentation and styles. Mehldau even plays vibes on a number of cuts.
Critics were quick to note the rock influence when Largo was released and quick to credit Brion, who’s produced Fiona Applegate and Kayane West among others ( and owns the club that lends its name as the recording’s title). Put aside the rock and pop influence–Mehldau’s famous for his variations of pop and alternative tunes–and you hear a wider embrace.
You can hear it in the first tune’s instrumentation, the woodwind harmonics adding embellishment and counterpoint. Other tunes area bit more eclectic–French horns, trombones and bass trombone–but to the same purpose. Radiohead’s, “Paranoid Android” has a Chopinesque interlude.The final cut, complete with Brion and Mehldau’s story of how their relationship began, his pure 20th century piano music.
We always thought reviewers had missed this boat when celebrating Largo‘s release but that wasn’t entirely true. Now we think they’re missing it again. Largo is a much more interesting recording than Highway Rider, classical touches aside. Largo has more varied influences and all fit well. The themes in Highway Rider aren’t as interesting and we’re often disappointed to hear them return. And the orchestration isn’t as perfect a blend as it is with the putty-treated piano of Largo. There’s a certain pinched quality to the tunes, as if too much were squeezed into the recording’s digital binaries. (Inside sources at the recording studio told me that tracks were piled on tracks as the finished product was realized…but that shouldn’t matter, should it?).
Ted Panken’s thoughtful Mehldau piece outlines the pianist’s long interest in classical music–he even notes Mehldau’s Germanic-inspired liner notes from years past–and charts its influence on his previous recordings….except one. Meanwhile, Mehldau continues to pursue the direction. And, let’s hope, others as well. —Cabbage Rabbit