Monday, November 15, 2010

Brad Mehldau's "The Highway Rider"'

The question that popped into my head as I waited in line to get a cancellation ticket for Brad Mehldau’s sold-out “Highway Rider” jazz concert at Carnegie Hall was: “Why are there so many Chinese here?” There was hardly a white Caucasian in the crowd of concert-goers waiting to enter Carnegie Hall. Does the cult of Mehldau go all the way to Beijing? I saw groups being disgorged by buses, and some of them plainly did not seem to look like jazz fans at all, merely tourists out on a New York thing. And then, it occurred to me: of course, the conductor of the string ensemble backing him up, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was Chinese-American, Scott Yoo . That, and the fact that this concert was available for discounted group sales would partially explain the preponderance of Asians in this gathering. Still I had to believe that it was Brad Mehldau they were really coming to listen to, not the back-up orchestra.

Unfortunately, only six people were able to get cancellation tickets. Fifteen or so of us received the not really devastating message that no further tickets were available (the Carnegie has a no standing room policy).The twentysomethings behind me who hailed all the way from Barcelona decided to buy tickets for next day’s concert by Chris Potter, the saxophone player. Mehldau was coming back in January, so I could catch him then, or in the Blue Note or the Village Vanguard when he was in town again.

Brad Mehldau is the current holder of the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. Not content with playing jazz, he has branched off into composing set pieces for piano and orchestra, a la Wynton Marsalis, with more classical pretensions.

I was sufficiently intrigued by his current musical project that, back in my apartment, I listened to some music files of “Highway Rider” which were available on YouTube.

Almost immediately I thought I heard in some of his pieces something of Erik Satie with strings. It made sense, because Mehldau is a very economical player. Even with rapid runs, he plays only so many notes that were needed for the musical idea that he was expounding, and nothing more. He has also a muscular feel in the way he presses his note. You could feel a strength withheld in his passages, a power that was there, but not banged out. Mehldau has all the qualities of a Zen warrior at the piano, gentle but forceful when necessary. Perhaps the presence of so many Asians in his Carnegie Hall concert was not by chance after all. He reminds me of Keith Jarrett, without the moaning.

As for the compositions themselves, they seemed to me like new age music with sufficiently unusual chord changes that made you listen and think. They bear repeated hearings. Mr. Mehldau wrote a more or less clarifying explanation of “Highway Rider”s program in the concert’s program notes, invoking the names of Beethoven and Strauss. Whatever. Joshua Redman (saxophone), Larry Grenadier (bass), and Jeff Ballard’s and Matt Chamberlain (percussion) rounded out the jazz quintet, backed up by the St.Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Scott Yoo.

Back in the ‘80’s, while working on a cruiseship, a young bandmember fresh from music school started enthusing to me about a jazz pianist who had given a lecture-performance at his class. There was awe in his voice when he described this pianist.

“What’s his name?” I asked

“Brad Mehldau,” he replied. “Man, that cat can play.”

I had heard of him, but I was weaned on Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, as I'm sure, Mr. Mehldau may have been at some point in his I wasn't that interested.

“Good for him,” I said.

The bandmember however always managed to gush about Brad Mehldau every chance he got, so there was a point when I thought: “ If he is going to say that name again, I’m going to scream!’’

Times have changed. Nowadays I can’t listen to Oscar Peterson anymore without muttering: “Blahblahblah!”

Bring on the Brad Mehldau’s of the world.

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