Brad Mehldau is as adventurous as he is prolific. Recent years have seen solo and trio recordings‚ both live and in the studio‚ as well as his recording/touring project with guitarist Pat Metheny. Now he hearkens back to one his most expansive works‚ Largo‚ by once again collaborating with Jon Brion‚ but moving in a different direction than their previous work from 2002.
A two-CD set featuring The Brad Mehldau Trio‚ with guest appearances from saxophonist Joshua Redman and drummer Matt Chamberlain‚ Highway Rider uses orchestral arrangements as on "Now You Must Climb Alone‚" for example‚ to create a symphonic majesty. Due largely to Redman's presence on tracks like "John Boy‚" the music retains some of the intimacy of a traditional jazz quartet. And fortunately‚ throughout the album's track sequence‚ there is enough trio content‚ plus the occasional solo piano cuts like "At the Tollbooth‚" to enhance the pacing; this aspect of Brion's production is impeccable as he preserves the virtues of Mehldau's own playing and that of his trio-- a deep passionate intricacy and arresting empathy--as well as the slightly ominous atmosphere of Highway Rider as a whole.
Nevertheless‚ as is the case with many an extended work‚ this one would've definitely benefited from judicious editing. And given the fact the total running time stands at a little over an hour‚ only relatively minor excisions would be necessary. For instance‚ "Walking the Peak" and "The Falcon Will Fly Again" (which features some suspect vocals)‚ might've been left out which‚ in turn‚ would leave "Sky Turning Grey (For Elliott Smith)" and "Always Departing‚ Always Returning" more prominent: each of those latter cuts extends the somber introspective mood that usually pervades Brad Mehldau's best music.
No question the pianist/composer‚ as well as his main collaborator‚ should be lauded for their ambition. But Highway Rider might well have been a stellar fusion of composition and musicianship‚ not to mention a more unified‚ cohesive statement‚ with slightly less ambition and slightly more restraint.