Aug 9 2014
Highway Rider isn’t my favorite Brad Mehldau album, but it is the one I keep coming back to most frequently. It is sonic comfort food for my ears. At the end of a long exhaustive week, it is the first thing I put on after closing the door behind me and attempt to transition from weekday to weekend. The way the album opens with the pretty melody and sussurant rhythmic chatter of “John Boy” is an invitation to decompress. And then the orchestra enters with some deeply resonant textures to which Joshua Redman joins with on soprano sax. There is a tranquility and a redolence to this song, and, really, to the entire album.
The addition of the orchestra, especially of the string section, I find particularly appealing. While my favorite Mehldau recordings are typically his trio sessions, it was Largo that first got me hooked on his creative vision. Largo is a bit of an oddball recording in the Mehldau discography. The songs have a presence not unlike other favorites such as Day is Done, Where Do You Start? and Anything Goes, which have a cerebral bent and a heart that beats quietly but carries far and strong. But the instrumentation on Largo and its eccentric expressions got me good, and it wasn’t long after that I dove into Mehldau’s other recordings.
Highway Rider, like Largo, has more depth in the instrumentation pool, and it expresses itself differently than other recordings. The melodies are what bind the album together into a cohesive whole. From a melodic standpoint, Highway Rider is a room of mirrors, where each reflective surface has its own shape and surface and presents a similar melody with just enough differentiation to allow the qualities of complexity to emerge, but with enough similarities to present the recording in a nice tiny bundle.
It was an early Sunday morning and I was heading out of Louisville, headed back home. The sun was lighting up a countryside of slight, rolling hills and green green fields. The horizon was a mix of yellows and blues and large billowy clouds. I turned on the radio and the local station greeted me with Mehldau’s “The Falcon Will Fly Again.” Mehldau’s ensemble finds the sweet spot between mid-tempo activity and languorous sighs of melody. Redman’s soprano sax dances spryly atop a tableau of dynamic rhythms. It presents a sing-song disposition while allowing for some wonderful development of the opening statements. It’s a beautiful song that went so well with driving through bluegrass country, early on a Sunday morning when the world seemed at peace. That I came upon it by chance on the radio was one of those happy surprises that makes a person feel in synch with the movement of life about them.
The quiet piano interlude of “At the Tollbooth,” the way in which “Don’t Be Sad” builds up to a roar and gets carried along on the waves of strings, and the way those strings are thick as storm clouds and just as beautifully fearsome on “Now You Must Climb Alone” and “Walking the Peak” construct environments in which Mehldau and crew provide rhythmic phrases and permutations of melody that provide some necessary, wonderful contrast from the thick, lovely harmonies from the orchestra.
The masterful way in which Mehldau employs melodies on Highway Rider is most evidenced in how the jaunty tune “Sky Turning Grey [For Elliott Smith]” is the closest thing to a pop song on this album, which is signified by many many songs that are catchy in their own right and which I find myself singing under my breath with some regularity. This, on an album that doesn’t shortchange on edgy solos.
It’s a rainy Saturday morning. Thick with grey clouds, the gloomy skies have captured just enough sunlight to counteract the oppression of the thick mist and lighten up the trees and grass and plants to a bright, fairytale shade of green. There was a sense of peaceful quiet in the air, as if this tiny town had come to a consensual agreement that no one would break the stillness of the morning. It was the perfect moment for Highway Rider.
I just wanted to share that.
Your album personnel: Brad Mehldau (piano, pump organ, Yamaha CS-80, orchestral bells), Jeff Ballard (percussion, drums, snare brush), Joshua Redman (soprano & tenor saxes), Larry Grenadier (bass), Matt Chamberlain (drums) and the Orchestra with Dan Coleman (conductor) and special guests The Fleurettes (vocals). Handclaps attributable to band members.
Released in 2010 on Nonesuch Records.
Album cover by Richard Misrach, “Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas, 1987.”