By Michael Katz
Pianist Brad Mehldau brought an estimable quintet to Disney Hall Friday night to perform compositions from his Night Rider album, backed by a chamber orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo. The combination of jazz and orchestra always presents challenges to both musicians and audience, as traditional soloing and interplay within a small group becomes subject to a broader and more lush combination of strings and horns. Mehldau’s compositions and arrangements were noteworthy as much for the juxtapositions of his multi-talented quintet as for the compositions themselves.
The material in Night Rider is evocative of the mysteries of a journey. Its themes are elegiac, the presentation influenced most directly by the use of dual percussionists Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain, augmented by the steady backing of bassist Larry Grenadier. In the brief opening number, “John Boy,” Ballard and Chamberlain were out front, the former on a tiny bongo, the latter on an enlarged wooden snare drum, establishing a bright, tabla-like rhythm evoking the hopefulness of the journey’s outset.
Featured soloist Joshua Redman had an extended run on the following number, “Don’t Be Sad,” which exemplified both the advantages and pitfalls of orchestral backing. The chamber orchestra’s lush accompaniment spread beautifully through Disney Hall, but Redman’s expressive tenor work struggled to be heard, a problem the group seemed to tinker with to increasing success as the concert went on. His soprano work on “The Falcon Will Fly Again” was clear and crisp. The higher tonality seemed to stand up more effectively to the orchestral background, and worked in counterpoint to Ballard and Chamberlain, who were back on the smaller drums after alternating on the larger drum sets.
Mehldau’s own playing on these compositions was an expressive stream of consciousness. The themes of mystery and self-discovery leaned toward the hypnotic; they were reminiscent at times of the orchestrations of Maria Schneider, though more focused on the quintet up front. “We’ll Cross The River Together” opened up the second set with a full orchestral treatment, but pulled back this time to give Redman more space on his tenor solo, which floated beautifully through Disney Hall. The climax of it was the sweetest sound from a tenor this side of Charles Lloyd, and made you want to hear more of Redman at this venue in a pure jazz setting.
Chamberlain and Ballard returned again to the smaller, brighter percussion instruments for “Capriccio,” with Ballard on tambourine, for a brief, Spanish-influenced turn. The highlight of the evening for Mehldau fans was the pure trio performance of “Into The City,” which gave bassist Grenadier a chance to stretch out as well. Mehldau’s playing continued in the manner of the project as a whole, evocative of mood though not establishing many clearly lyrical progressions.
“Old West” featured an extended dual interplay between Redman on soprano sax and Mehldau on piano, and Mehldau stretched out for more elaborate harmonies on the closing “Always Departing/Always Returning.” The capacity crowd at Disney Hall rewarded Mehldau and company with a prolonged ovation, in appreciation for virtuosity spread through permutations of jazz quintet and chamber orchestra.
Photos by Tony Gieske.