It was getting hard to admit to being a Brad Mehldau fan. When Mehldau first began making waves outside all but the most ear-to-the-ground jazz circles, it was for his then-groundbreaking renditions of songs by Nick Drake and Radiohead. The effect was akin to Rick Rubin's decision to turn Johnny Cash loose on Beck and Soundgarden—suddenly a veritable gold mine of material had been opened to reinterpretation through an entirely different lens. Even today, Mehldau's readings of "River Man" and "Exit Music (From a Film)" are stunning masterclasses of intuition, feel, and raw talent.
But as everyone from The Bad Plus to Christopher O'Riley began beating this trend into the ground, Mehldau went from groundbreaker to cliché in rather short order. Even the 2005 addition of peerless drummer Jeff Ballard to his trio failed to produce the same invigorating sparks he enjoyed earlier in his career. But sometimes it's not who's playing the song, as much as it's the song itself.
The worst thing that the Drake/Radiohead years did to Mehldau's career was to take him away from his own writing—it is with no exaggeration that I say that his self-penned 1999 solo piano album, Elegiac Cycle, is one of the best records I've ever heard. Highway Rider sees Mehldau 'the composer' come back out of hiding, and the results are stunning. It is also his first record with L.A. pop and soundtrack producer Jon Brion since 2002's crossover hit, Largo, and the pairing once again proves to be an inspired choice.
Recorded with his trio, sax man Joshua Redman, drummer Matt Chamberlain and a full orchestra, the double album may be loosely based around the narrative of a journey, but it plays like a gorgeous love letter to the bygone era of old Hollywood films. It's not at all a stretch to envision the likes of Greta Garbo and Cary Grant sauntering through your own private mental vistas as you take in Highway Rider. But there's also just enough dissonance in the compositions to keep things modern and unpredictable. Above all, for a double album of jazz/classical hybrid tunes, it's disarmingly melodic and hooky. You could point to a few factors—I'm very sure that Brion helped relax the proceedings immensely—but it really feels like Mehldau is becoming comfortable again with the quality of his own writing. And I say 'bravo' to that.