Brad Mehldau – Largo (2002)

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by Tom Johnson

There are some albums that successfully work as a soundtrack of sorts, that, while they don’t jump out at you the way Matthew Shipp’s Nu Bop did, they work their way into your subconscious without simply becoming aural wallpaper, “lite jazz.” Some music is intelligent enough to simply be beautiful without being mindless, and Largo is certainly that.

Brad Mehldau’s jazz credentials are without a doubt in order, but he has been the subject of scrutiny for his desire to not repeat the hard-bop past of his influences like Thelonious Monk. There are many moments on his past albums where the sound is just as much classical as it is jazz, and for this some purists have shunned him from the ranks of jazz.

It’s ironic that the music’s heyday was centered on the time when musicians were freely breaking the rules and conventions set in place by their musical ancestors, but today has become a sort of “living museum” tended to by the likes of such backward-looking proctors as Wynton Marsalis, who has insisted that improvisation – a landmark of jazz – isn’t even musical.

Brad Mehldau, as well as avante garde pianist Matthew Shipp, well, they’re not for those people.

On Largo, Mehldau employed the use of a rock producer in the form of Jon Brion, whose presence on countless pop and rock albums has gone woefully unnoticed by the public at large. (Check out Brion’s solo album of the same period; it’s delightfully catchy and charming pop-rock.) Suffice it to say that if you care about music, you’ve doubtless heard him somewhere and not had any idea he was there. To Largo he brought a new sensibility for Mehldau’s jazz, pretty much lifting him completely out of the genre altogether in the process. To say he simplified Mehldau’s music would be an insult to the beauty of the results.

Brion’s most successful when he is given the freedom to let the music drift along, as if propelled by some ethereal energy. The opening cut “When It Rains” could easily accompany the beginning credits of a comic-drama, as it has the kind of wide-eyed innocence that can allow for anything to happen after it. The surprise of the album was his take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” Jazz used to regularly take on popular hits to create new and usually more intriguing music, but this is a habit that has fallen out of favor – mostly due to the fact that there’s not enough meat on today’s pop/rock to expand upon. Brad Mehldau has aptly chosen these mopy modern rock-gods once before, on an extended version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a film)” and the result, as with his cut of “Android,” was astonishing.

Where many artists might slip into smaltzy mimicry, Mehldau goes out of his way to simply state the structure of the song. The centerpiece is the solo, where the band stretches out and expands the song’s structure to a point where it is barely recognizable, then quickly snaps back into the familiar melody. The difficulty of covering familiar music with the piano is the instrument’s rigid nature; it is often a challenge for lesser musicians to break out of a well-known melody and do something new with it. Mehldau, of course, is not a lesser-musician, and ably handles the tune, carrying the vocal line on the keyboard for a short while without turning it into Muzak.

He also took on two Beatles tunes, “Dear Prudence” and “Mother Nature’s Son” (cleverly paired with a Jobim song, “Wave,”) also without resorting to a simplistic rendering – especially difficult given the simple nature of these choices. That’s exactly the beauty of the later Beatles recordings, and simplicity is a key to why Largo is such a stunning album from an already well-established artist of Mehldau’s stature.

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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