Mehldau Revisits Highway Rider with Star Collaborators at SFJAZZ

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Pianist Brad Mehldau (far left) leads members of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Alumni Orchestra and his own trio for a performance of Highway Rider at SFJAZZ.

(Photo: Scott Chernis)

Like anticipating the film adaption of a favorite novel, it’s exciting to imagine how an ambitious recording will translate live.

A towering achievement, pianist-composer Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010) was presented in concert Oct. 6–9 at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. The experience of hearing this concept album live was just as moving as one would hope.

Most of the main players from the recording sessions, which took place in Hollywood, in late February and mid-March of 2009, were on hand to revisit this two-part extended work. Mehldau’s current trio—with double bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard—joined him on the Miner Auditorium bandstand, as did conductor Dan Coleman.

Original drummer Matt Chamberlain was unavailable, so Mehldau’s frequent collaborator Mark Guiliana (with whom the pianist worked in the keyboard-drums duo Mehliana) was brought on board and proved to be an inspired replacement.

The orchestra was pared down from the 46 players who once gathered at Ocean Way Studios to 31 instrumentalists assembled in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. The smaller group scaled down nicely for the 700-seat venue, which Mehldau later said was the perfect setting for this piece.

In his opening night speech, SFJAZZ Founder and Executive Artistic/Director Randall Kline explained that Highway Rider had only been performed on four prior occasions and that there were no plans for it be revisited after its Northern California debut.

He also introduced the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Alumni Orchestra, which is made up of graduates from the school located a block south of the SFJAZZ Center, and mentioned that members of the SFJAZZ Collective were in attendance.

With members of the orchestra occupying the back half of the bandstand, Mehldau opened with the flowing arpeggios and longing monophonic melody of “John Boy.” The warmth of the brass section (which included woodwinds and English horn but not trumpet or trombone) and subtle hand percussion from Ballard and Guiliana (both seated behind Mehldau) emerged, as did saxophonist Joshua Redman’s pathos-laden playing.

The two drummers crossed in front of the stage to relocate to their drums before “Don’t Be Sad,” on which Ballard played with brushes and Guiliana with sticks. Redman’s searching tenor tones and the rich strings gave this piece a particular cinematic quality—appropriate for a room that had hosted performance-paired screenings of films such as Birdman and the documentary Amy Winehouse documentary, Amy.

“At The Tollbooth,” a brief solo piano interlude, segued into the title track. It featured the trio of Mehldau, Grenadier and Guiliana, with the drummer replicating a precise drum-and-bass style that is also one of his specialties. Guiliana and Ballard walked back to their stage left positions to provide intricate percussion and handclaps for “The Falcon Will Fly Again,” which showcased Redman’s luminous soprano lines.

Mehldau then picked up a microphone to make some remarks about the album and show. He didn’t include one of his insightful essays with the double CD of Highway Rider, so it was a bonus to hear some of his insights about the album.

He explained that Redman, his longtime friend and collaborator, serves as the protagonist for a “cyclical journey” in which the hero leaves home, ascends to a mountaintop, befriends fellow travelers and continues his voyage. Not wanting to dictate any particular interpretation of the piece, he encouraged the audience to fill in the blanks.

As for the assembled musicians, he lauded the San Francisco Conservatory alumni and compared their working aesthetic to that of the communal Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with whom he’s worked. Mehldau also sung the praises of his four jazz side colleagues (three of whom happen to be Bay Area natives) and also of Julliard alumnus Coleman, whom he said helped him in originally orchestrating this project.

The lush, strictly orchestral “Now You Must Climb Alone” preceded “Walking The Peak,” in which regal concert percussion and Grenadier’s oaky, pulsing bass line led to the close of the first half.

“We’ll Cross The River Together” opened the second half with Mehldau’s graceful, string-accompanied pianist declarations. Taking a break about two-thirds of they way through, he explained that “Sky Turning Grey (For Elliott Smith”) was dedicated to the late singer-songwriter, whom he’d gotten to know when they both lived in Southern California and frequented the club Largo (also the title of Mehldau’s adventurous studio album from 2002).

After the final sustained orchestral notes of closing number “Always Returning,” the capacity crowd took a brief moment to reflect on the event before bursting into rapturous applause.

Though Mehldau didn’t play pump organ or vintage Yamaha CS-80 keyboard—as he did on the album—the live rendition of Highway Rider still translated magnificently to the 21st-century chamber hall-meets-small theater setting of the SFJAZZ Center.



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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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