You press play on the trusty CD player and the lights seem to fade. The sound of quivering strings and splashing piano enters your ears. Your eyes close. Images form on the back of your eyelids. Is this a dream? Have I been hear before? The images become clearer, running together to make a scene. Dusty mountains under a pink morning sky through a window. You realize you're in the backseat of a car, cruising down a lonely stretch of I-15. The driver is a rather demure man, brown-haired, about 40, with dark sunglasses that stop his eyes from ruining a perfect scowl. He doesn't talk, except to say that his name is Brad. He doesn't say where you are going, doesn't stop to look at the bison, doesn't impulsively pull off and take a scenic route. You just drive, the mountains gradually melting into the horizon of your mind.
Such is the Herzogian road trip that is pianist Brad Mehldau's newest album, "Highway Rider." Entering the recording studio as a leader for the first time since 2005's "Day is Done," Mehldau doesn't just bring along his trio of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, but producer Jon Brion, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and a chamber orchestra. The resulting music thick and dark, but with anxious grooves simmering below the surface. It's a soundtrack so enveloping, you don't need the visuals to tell you that you're in a road movie.
Certainly "Highway Rider" is cut from the same cloth as a pair of earlier Mehldau albums--1997's "Elegiac Cycle" and 2000's "Places." All three are each a sort of song cycle, each one possessing a unified musical language and a highfalutin' philosophical theme, whether the meaning of art in a transient life, the meaning of place in a transient life, or the meaning of well... transience, in a transient life. Yet despite the intellectual seriousness of "Elegiac Cycle" and "Places," they're profoundly engaging for their technical brilliance (maybe the most impressive extemporaneous tonal counterpoint on record) and clarity of storytelling. But while "Highway Rider" is an attractive album, it doesn't stick in the mind like the earlier ones do.
A big reason for that is the addition of the orchestra. Though Mehldau's tunes on "Elegiac Cycle" and "Places" had the same classically-oriented harmonic language as their counterparts on "Highway Rider," they were basically straight heads, allowing Mehldau add on extemporaneous variations at will. There was a logic to the solos, but there was also an element of surprise, as Mehldau could take the piece wherever he pleased whether by himself or accompanied by his uncannily sympathetic trio. The orchestra parts act as a straitjacket on Mehldau's playing--the thick blotches of ink on paper drag Mehldau's whimsical explorations back to earth. There are certainly beguiling moments during the 90 minutes of music, especially Mehldau and Co's admirably un-touched-up singing on "The Falcon will Fly Again." But the moments of joyful looseness highlight just how stifling the rest of the album can be.
Producer Jon Brion also makes a few surprising choices in the mix. Sometimes the volume of Mehldau's piano seems a bit too artificially inflated and Josh Redman's passionate saxophone solos aren't given enough of a boost to carry over the thick orchestral writing. And Brion doesn't bring the same kind of sonic playfulness that he inserted into Mehldau's 2002 effort "Largo,"(no silly putty in the piano this time). Overall, the production is clean and tightly controlled, more like what you'd hear on a concise pop record than the freewheeling jazz records Mehldau puts out. Though the texturally rich music of "Highway Rider" evokes strong images of vast western expanse, the listener is stuck looking at them through a car window. There is no off-roading or scenic detour, no adventure with an uncertain path. All you get is a view from the highway.