Brad Mehldau’s piano skills (particularly when showcased by his The Art of the Trio sequence) have seen him branded stylistically as an approximate Bill Evans for our times. In marketing terms, he has in addition shown the potential to become a new Keith Jarrett, in the latter’s Köln Concerts phase. Like Evans, his playing is elegant, classically informed, inventive and tending towards introspection. And although he owes little to Jarrett as a musical model, he does share an uncanny ability to improvise for days on end, but in that vaguely ambient manner that does not frighten folk away.
Perhaps Mehldau, who is after all only 32, has baulked at the Evans comparison, for with Largo he has produced a set that, while not lacking in the above qualities does represent a shift of emphasis. The new album draws its inspiration from the wider contemporary music scene rather than from the traditionally approved jazz sources. As such, it will undoubtedly divide his fan base (in fact, it already has done so). It is also likely to win him an even wider audience than he already commands. In that he may have moved himself more obviously into that position once held by Jarrett. He does not sound like anyone other than himself, but you can almost hear the hand-rubbing back at Warners as a new crossover star is born.
In fact, if success comes, it will be well deserved — for at least two reasons. One is that Mehldau has always shown an interest in covering and re-working non-jazz tunes. Conceptually, I don’t think this is as much of a break with his past as has been made out. Dismissing this album on the grounds of “selling out” is very wide of the mark. The other reason is that, while much of the material is not to my taste (I am no fan of many of the sources he uses here), it is all done with intelligence and a sense of adventure. As I seem to be saying too often lately, any injection of those qualities into the pop and rock markets is to be welcomed. And it is those pop and rock worlds which should now open up to him. Jazz fans should not despair though. Mehldau is still a “jazz” force to be reckoned with.
To reiterate, for much of the recording, Mehldau is Mehldau as generally known. If anything, the classical leanings are more evident than ever and the improvisational excursions still abound. The overall sound however is one for which a background in the artier reaches of progressive rock and the more “English” of recent electronica might best prepare the listener. It is more than simply the appearance of Radiohead and Beatles songs that demonstrate this. Nor is it even the horrendous heavy metal track that comprises the one irredeemable segment of the set. The whole session simply has a prog rock rather than a jazz feel. It is prog in a very refined and post-modern form, but I am willing to bet that both the Pink Floyd and Radiohead generations will get what’s going on here quicker than anyone raised on Parker or Ellington.
Producer/collaborator Jon Brion (Eels, Fiona Apple etc) has much to do with this. The album really hinges on the question of whether you find that his settings spur Mehldau to new (and different) heights or whether the pianist just sounds constrained — a jazz improviser hemmed in by pop (albeit of a rarefied kind) arrangements. I will fence sit and call it a fifty-fifty draw. The results are certainly fresh and always avoid the predictability that piano jazz, even that of so gifted a performer as Mehldau, can succumb to. On the other hand, the total journey can be a somewhat bumpy and uneven ride.
While the classical Mehldau slips easily into the more mellow arrangements. On the uptempo numbers, some of the jazz flow is sacrificed in favour of excessive angularity. Mehldau was never the most soulful or emotional of players (see his notoriously “intellectual” sleeve notes). At times here he appears cold rather than cool. This austere quality has its own appeal but does wear one down after a while. The oddest aspect of all this is that there is a romanticism and even a sentimental lyricism to many of the melodies employed. This juxtaposition/contrast will be seen as a strength by some and as nicely ironic by others. For me, it is all a little too self-conscious, as if Mehldau was too concerned to forestall accusations of “easy listening”.
Whatever, the main thing is this is Mehldau is never boring or obvious. The most talked about track has been his take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, which is reworked into a nine-minute suite wherein thumping, tumultuous playing alternates with Chopinesque sections of immense purity and beauty. It works superbly and the orchestration and added brushstrokes from Brion are subtle and telling. Here, everything seems to be in the right place.
Of the “up” numbers, “Dusty McNugget” is the most engaging, thanks largely to the “horn” additions from Brion. Jazz modernists will probably most enjoy the bass/piano pyrotechnics of “Free Willy”. In more mellow mode, the Beatles’ tracks, “Dear Prudence” and “Mother Nature’s Son”, are also winners. “Dear Prudence” especially so, since it allows the “Englishness” that the album exudes full flight. Penguin Cafe Orchestra meets Stan Tracey is about as close as I can get to the impression made by Mehldau as he confidently guides the tune from straightforward to oblique then back again.
The supposedly “ambient/loungey” pieces are actually my favourites. The opening track, “When It Rains”, is lyrical and very filmic. It too moves through tempi and mood changes but has a unity that is occasionally (and probably deliberately) lacking elsewhere. The closing “I Do” is a model of clarity and poise and shows Mehldau at his contemplative best. This one lingers in the mind and has a tranquility to it that is in no way superficially “chilled out” but thoughtful and genuinely sensitive.
Because Mehldau’s expertise is never less than assured,Largo is less of a gamble than it initially appears. There are some lapses in taste (“Sabbath” is the most horrible thing I’ve heard all year). Nonetheless, Mehldau hits home far more than he misses. I know some will miss the sound of the pianist in full, unfettered flight, but the more song-based structure used here has its own challenges and rewards. And if the more adventurous late night radio shows get behind it, it might prove one of the year’s more significant releases. Spend a little time with this one, it throws up those uncertainties that are often the mark of watershed albums. It may not prove to be that, but the requisite ingredients are definitely there. Easily the most intriguing jazz release this summer, surely a recommendation in itself.