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 does, they work their way into your subconscious without simply becoming aural wallpaper as the “lite jazz” I previously mentioned does. 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 Thelonius 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 a jazz musician. It’s ironic that jazz’s heyday was centered around 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 insists that improvisation – a landmark of jazz – isn’t even musical. Brad Mehldau, as well as avante garde pianist Matthew Shipp, is not for those people.
On Largo, Mehldau has 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 (and who has a solo album of delightfully catchy and charming pop-rock himself.) 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 brings a new sensibility for Mehldau’s jazz, pretty much lifting him completely out of the genre altogether in the process. To say he simplifies Mehldau’s music would be an insult to the beauty of the music that results. Brion’s most successful when he is given the freedom to let the music drift along, as if propelled by some ethereal energy. 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 is 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 mopy modern rock-gods Radiohead once before, on an extended version of “Exit Music (for a film)” and the result, as with his cut of “Android,” is 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 of the song 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 that because of the instrument’s rigid nature it is often difficult 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 employs the use of two Beatles tunes, “Dear Prudence” and “Mother Nature’s Son” (which is cleverly paired with a Jobim song, “Wave,”) also without resorting to a simplistic rendering – especially difficult given the simple nature of these choices, which is 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.