Pianist Mehldau finds himself in the studio with a rock producer and a whole 6 days of...
Peter Marsh 2002
Over the past few years, Brad Mehldau's grandly titled Art of the Trio records have gained him a reputation as a thoughtful, lyrical pianist who (like Bill Evans) draws as much from classical tradition as jazz. Largo is quite a different kettle of fish though, resulting from Mehldau's collaboration with producer Jon Brion, whose CV includes work for Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann among others.
Unused to spending much time on a record, Mehldau was shocked to discover he and Brion had 6 days in the studio. Not much for the average rock album, but a lifetime for a realtime improviser. Brion goes for the studio as instrument approach, treating the piano either physically or electronically and adding splashes of colour from horns, electronics and guitars using a cast of players including Mehldau's usual trio of Jorge Rossy and Larry Grenadier, as well as session vet Jim Keltner and Beck's bassist Justin Meldal-Jonson.
Mehldau more than rises to the challenge; on "Dropjes" and "Free Willie" (both studio jams edited and reconstructed Teo Macero style) he unleashes solo flights of sparkling brilliance, while Brion's treatments twist new sonorities from the Steinway.
Similarly, "You're Vibing Me" (featuring Mehldau on vibes) and "Alvarado" offer expansive, almost psychedelic takes on the piano trio format. The opening "When It Rains" is simply beautiful, somewhere between Bill Evans and the wide open spaces of Bill Frisell's Americana.
At other times though, Mehldau appears a bit hemmed in; the lifeless funk thud of "Dusty McNugget" fails to inspire anyone much, while the grim sub metal antics of "Sabbath" go nowhere slowly. If there's irony here, it's buried deep. Similarly, the covers of "Dear Prudence" and "Mother Nature's Son" (here coupled with Jobim's "Wave") only begin to work once the tune is a distant memory. Maybe there should be kind of legislation to stop jazzers touching Beatles tunes (maybe Kenneth Clarke could do it as a private member's bill).
That doesn't extend to Mehldau's rework of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android". Mehldau's covered the Oxford prog existentialists before and here transforms the tune into a mini suite, opening with an extended episode of edgy gamelan funk before picking out the aching melody in Satie-esque fashion over a brooding backdrop of horns. Lovely, though whether Radiohead fans will think so is a moot point.
Brion and Mehldau are certainly unafraid of experiment, and that can only be a good thing. Even if occasionally the results are a curate's egg, it's one well worth tucking into. Recommended.