In recent years pianist Brad Mehldau has operated in a variety of formats from solo to trio, but on this latest recording he has gone one step further and included a quartet with saxophone and even a string orchestra as well as adding percussion and omitting bass in the aforementioned, and all this highlighting his own compositions. This represents by far his most diverse and ambitious album thus far and is testimony to the multiplicity of musical influences Mehldau has been soaking up and these include both the romantic period of classical composers such as Brahms and Tchaikovsky and the orchestrations of singers of the calibre of Jacques Brel and Tom Waits. Intimate duets, hispanicised-influenced numbers and layered orchestrations are just some of the new features on ‘Highway Rider’. Mehldau himself plays not only acoustic piano, but equally pump organ, electric piano and even orchestral bells. However, long-time fans should not be afraid, for it is primarily on acoustic piano that he plays here.
The romanticism is most evident on the piece ‘John boy’ with Joshua Redman on soprano saxophone with orchestra, but minus bass. One of the revelations of this album is the rapport between Mehldau and Redman on the gorgeous composition ‘Old west’, a duet which opens up a whole new territory for the pianist to explore for a possible future project. The usual trio with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums is at times augmented by an additional drummer, Matt Chamberlain, bringing to mind the use of an extra percussionist by both Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane during the 1960s. Here Chamberlain operates to bring more contemporary drum patterns to play, inspired by hip-hop and other newer musical forms. One example of this is the title track where very subtle sampling technique drumming is used to compliment the layered textures on electric keyboards and the format works equally well on ‘The falcon will fly again’. Flamenco influences are discernable on ‘Capriccio’ with handclaps while expansive film soundtrack sounds are evident on the epic twelve and a half minute opener, ‘We’ll cross the river’. There is quite a lot of music to take in here and plenty of new avenues for Mehldau to explore in more depth at a later stage. In general this is a supremely varied album that is ideally suited to being stretched over two CDs. A brief UK tour in early June promises to be another pianistic treat.