Mehldau’s Metheny Side

It’s not avant-garde by any stretch, and some of the musicians who’ve noticed themselves on this blog might be appalled to be put in this company, but — yes, I listen to regular jazz on occasion, including Brad Mehldau’s latest, Highway Rider.

The album augments his trio (which he’s ending, apparently) with Joshua Redman on saxophone and a chamber orchestra on a few tracks. It’s ambitious and strikes me as sounding particularly Pat Metheny-esque.

I’m not a fan of big string sections with jazz. Yes, they can dial up the drama, but a lifetime of TV and movies has my brain linking a cinematic sound with corniness.  Not always, but usually.  I recall some years back, when KZSU, by total coincidence, received a spate of jazz CDs that added string quartets, mostly in unimaginative wannabe-classical arrangements. That didn’t help.

(This is part of what impressed me so much with Yoni Kretzmer‘s New Dilemma, mentioned in the previous post. His string trio forms a bona fide jazz rhythm section that’s swinging, serious, or vivacious when appropriate. They’re non-symphonic.)

Some of the orchestral touches are novel, though. The contrabassoon gets a low, low passage to end “We’ll Cross the River Together,” for instance. And overall, I appreciate the bigness behind the orchestrated pieces. It’s cinematic and spacious. Maybe the drive-in screen on the album cover is apt in that sense, minus the associations with dilapidation and obsolescence.

Metheny has done similar big-sky work with chamber orchestras. Secret Story (Geffen, 1992) impressed me in places. The ending to “Finding and Believing” uses strings for depth behind a fast, breezy two-chord pattern that’s at once soaring, sentimental, hopeful, and even rocking.

That’s the kind of Metheny connection that comes to mind as I listen to Highway Rider. And on some of the compositions, like “The Falcon Will Fly Again” (a small piece without orchestra), I can almost convince myself Metheny was the composer.

But Mehldau and Metheny aren’t the same person, and that’s easy to hear on the album they did together, Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch, 2006). Their melodic sensibilities differ; Metheny being airier, with a deeper ’70s-fusion influence (or maybe it’s all those ECM memories in my head that I’m hearing), Mehldau favoring a snapping energy and a subversive craving for sneaky dissonant moments. Their solos on “Ring of Life,” one of two tracks that includes Mehldau’s bandmates Larry Grenadier (bass) and Jeff Ballard (drums), highlight the contrast: Mehldau’s puzzle-like take on fast club jazz followed by Metheny’s horn-sounding synth guitar touching on warm, gray-skied fusion. (Someday I gotta hear the full album they did as a quartet.)

The best part of Highway Rider, though, is that not every track tries to be huge. That would get tedious over the course of two CDs. Small pieces with the regular trio (or quartet, with Redman) make for good breaks from the swelling strings and provide a more crisp experience, a peek into a smaller world that’s no less rich or intense.

I haven’t thoroughly listened to Highway Rider yet, but anyway … that’s what came spilling out of my brain on a first listen, searching, consciously or not, for those Metheny parallels.