Brad Mehldau’s masterpiece “Highway Rider” is the centerpiece of SF Jazz’s 5th season, performed in full from Thursday through this Sunday, October 9th. Highway Rider is a concept album from 2010 that essentially chronicles the journey of “John Boy” (the first track) on a life journey that becomes cyclical. The album features Joshua Redman on tenor and soprano sax and an accompanying orchestra, and it was produced by Jon Brion, renowned for working with artists such as Kanye West, Fiona Apple, Katy Perry, and Elliott Smith.
So it was a rare treat to hear the performance last night, just the fourth time the entire album has been performed for a live audience. SF Jazz’s stage barely fit the 31-piece orchestra, plus Mehldau and Joshua Redman (the “protagonist” of the album, as Mehldau called him), Larry Grenadier on bass and then two drummers, Jeff Ballard and Mark Guiliana.
Overall, the concert was a tribute showcase to the powerful, deeply melodious and introspective tunes penned by Mehldau. The pianist has a gift for writing melodies that sound almost pop in nature but then unexpectedly hit a flat note or minor chord that changes your orientation and keeps the music compelling. Often the melodies veer into bluesy riffs. He also enjoys a bouncy, almost-rock music like approach to chords, making the music accessible and often toe-tapping.
This was different than a typical jazz show, which might just feature four or five players with heavy improvisation. In most jazz shows, the musicians basically just rehearse the intros and conclusions and then decide who solos when. Otherwise it’s mostly free-form improved solos.
With this show, it was necessarily much more structured. The concert mirrored the two-disc set, with an intermission as you “change CDs” (for those of us who are old school). With the orchestra (alumni of the San Francisco Conservatory) playing rehearsed backing music, the lead players were limited in how much they could improvise solos.
Certainly there was room for going off on a solo, as Redman did on outstanding tracks like the haunting “Don’t Be Sad,” bouyant “Capriccio” and “Old West.” One of the big crowd pleasers was “Into The City” featuring Jeff Ballard going hyper ballistic on drums, with Grenadier keeping pace along the way. Overall, theirs was a tightly structured performance that stayed true to the album.
The only negative comment is that the first half seemed a little bit stilted, perhaps due the unrehearsed nature of the performance (Mehldau admitted they really only had time for one rehearsal the day before). Redman had trouble with his reed on his soprano sax at a few points, and a french horn player and oboist inexplicably disappeared in the beginning and did not return. But it was stunning to hear the full sound of the jazz quintet with the backing orchestra, faithfully performing the sounds of the album.
The second half seemed much looser and more powerful, and I imagine these performances will only improve through the weekend (Sunday is the last day of the show). And for his part, Mehldau seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to play this work with such an accomplished group and a full orchestra. He even plugged a new book written as an analysis of the album.
It was overall an impressive and faithful performance of a boundary-pushing album, and a tour de force of musicianship, songwriting, and virtuoso playing. Worth seeing if you’re in the Bay Area.