At the crossroads of jazz and classical

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2010 - 2:32 PM

The SPCO hops on board pianist Brad Mehldau's "Highway Rider" for weekend concerts at the Walker.

Brad Mehldau

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Symphonic jazz? Jazz classical? Jazz/pop/minimalism? Pianist Brad Mehldau has built a career on mixing musical styles and influences into something celebrated as distinctly original.

He has put that aesthetic to particular work in his newest album "Highway Rider," a piece that flexes Mehldau's composing muscles as much as it does his jazz piano acumen. A familiar presence to Twin Cities music aficionados, Mehldau gives the album its live premiere this week with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and his own quintet, featuring tenor saxophone star Joshua Redman. The performances at Walker Art Center are in advance of a New York debut Nov. 9.

Chris Brown, SPCO's principal bass, was listening to the Mehldau CD when a reporter called last week. Brown considers Mehldau's style a blend. Certainly it is jazz-based, but Brown also heard pop motifs ("I hear a lot of Beatles in the first two songs") and quite a bit of texturing that mixed diverse styles and instrumental voices.

What's my part?

More important than labels, though, Brown is intrigued by the prospect of performing with Mehldau and he wonders how challenging or interesting the work will be for orchestra players. Is the SPCO a glorified backup band, or a partner that contributes vigorously to the sound?

"André Previn, a big crossover guy, used to say that melding jazz and orchestra is kind of not worth the effort," Brown said. "But this piece deserves more credibility upfront. This has an opportunity to help classical musicians grow. We are looking to him, and saying, 'What do you have, Jazz Guy? What are you going to give us?'"

He and his colleagues will know more once they see the written scores for the premiere. Mehldau, in a video on his website, acknowledges that: "A lot of the fun and challenge [for me] is the actual orchestration, assigning the instruments the notes."

Philip Bither, the Walker's performing arts curator, feels that the challenge -- the adrenaline rush for the musicians -- will come from the performance itself rather than the complexity of the score.

"The interesting thing will be for the SPCO to be right up against these jazz players, how to stay focused when there is wild improvisation going over the top," Bither said. "The timing and the flow will take some attention, so I think this is a far reach from a pops concert where a soloist plays in front of an orchestra that just saw charts for the first time a half-hour earlier."

Walker/SPCO partnership

This collaboration has several genesis points. Mehldau is in a season-long composing residency at Carnegie Hall. As such, he's doing a number of events at the famed New York venue and programmers called SPCO president Sarah Lutman to wonder if the ensemble wanted to get in on the "Highway Rider" premiere. After the orchestra's artistic advisory committee took the bait, Lutman pitched the idea of a local shakedown cruise at the Walker, where Bither is a longtime Mehldau fan.

"We wanted to do it here first, and it's fairly large-scale," Lutman said. "The Walker has a big stage and they have a jazz series so I called and Philip said yes."

The pianist will bring his quintet, with Redman, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummers Jeff Ballard and Matt Chamberlain. Roughly 30 players from the SPCO are expected to be used. They'll also play the New York premiere of "Highway Rider" in Carnegie's Zankel Hall. As part of the deal, Lutman got a pre-show gig there for just the orchestra -- a nice showcase in the 599-seat Zankel, located downstairs at Carnegie.

"It's great to be invited to New York and be presented by Carnegie Hall but there has to be a reason beyond that -- that makes sense for us," Lutman said.

Mehldau's quintet arrives for a few rehearsals this week. Until that time, Brown and his SPCO mates will keep listening to the "Highway Rider" CD for clues to their contribution.

"This kind of event almost gets typecast as a cross-cultural thing," Brown said. "I want a piece that works for everyone. Will this be one of the pieces that really work?

"Which is another way of saying, 'Is the string writing for the chamber orchestra going to be interesting?' That will make it more of a success. The performance will be about: How does the SPCO make this a more interesting piece?"

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299


    What: Chamber orchestra joins the jazz pianist for the premiere of his "Highway Rider" CD.

    When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

    Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.

    Tickets: $21-$25. 612-375-7600.

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