Londoners have been spoilt for chances to catch Brad Mehldau recently, thanks to his extended residency at the Wigmore Hall. In contrast to those intimate chamber concerts, his appearance at this year’s London Jazz Festival (serving as the European premier of ‘Highway Rider’) was an opportunity to experience his ambitious musical vision writ large, with support from the Britten Sinfonia, regular trio partners Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, with Matt Chamberlain on percussion and Joshua Redman on saxophones.
‘Highway Rider’ is an extended work uniting jazz with classical and rock, two influences that have long coloured Mehldau’s solo and trio output. This concert featured the work in its entirety, played exactly as on the album, with the obvious exception of Mehldau’s and Redman’s improvisations. Although this may be unusual for a jazz concert, it was sympathetic to the work’s journey-themed narrative.
For a person prone to fierce intellectualism (see the liner notes to his early albums as an example), Mehldau writes remarkably accessible and engaging music. He has previously hinted at the romanticism of Brahms and Schumann as an inspiration. This came across in several poignant solo interludes and cadenzas. Yet, the overriding sound of ‘Highway Rider’ was distinctively American, notably on ‘We’ll Cross the River Together’ with its Copland-like theme evoking the wide-open spaces of Mehldau’s home country.
During long periods of the work, the classical musicians sat on the sidelines as the music broke down into different small group configurations, offering much variety. A quartet featuring Mehldau and Redman with Ballard and Chamberlain on hand percussion provided some of the evening’s creative high-points, with Redman on daring form as his beguiling soprano lines swooped and tumbled over Mehldau’s driving accompaniment on ‘Capriccio’. The bustling, drum-and-bass infused ‘Into the City’ was the only piece featuring Mehldau’s regular trio. Here, Mehldau’s thrillingly warp-speed improvisation showed that in addition to his composing, he remains committed to pushing forward the vocabulary of jazz piano.
However, it was when the full ensemble combined—with Mehldau’s dense and brooding string arrangements set against the tandem rock rhythms of Ballard and Chamberlain on separate drum kits (on ‘Walking the Peak’ and ‘Always Returning’) —that the music packed its greatest emotional punch. The Britten Sinfonia has made crossover projects such as this their speciality, and their rendering of this score (under the baton of Scott Yoo) was flawless.
Throughout the best part of two hours, ‘Highway Rider’ captivated the Barbican audience, and even after a slightly overwrought finale, nobody could begrudge Mehldau the ecstatic standing ovation he received. For an encore, he stripped things down with a sublime contrapuntal solo account of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Martha My Dear’. As with the work that had come before, it was difficult to suppress the word ‘genius’ from my mind..