Highway Rider

Motif, Tonality, Chaos/Order, Narrative

All the music on “Highway Rider” is bound together by a two-part melody – a statement and a reply, you could say – that is heard most clearly at the beginning of “Now You Must Climb Alone”, played by the first violin:


This idea generates the melodies of the individual pieces in a variety of ways. Sometimes it crops up more overtly – especially in the example above, which is a kind of turning point for the record – and sometimes less so, acting more as a motif or set of intervals that can be manipulated into something else. It’s a method that I’ve used before to achieve thematic unity in two cyclical records of mine, “Elegiac Cycle” and “Places.”

What I hadn’t achieved on those records was a way of connecting my motific melody with the larger tonal architecture of the whole, giving the work more structure and a feeling of deeper tension and eventually deeper resolution. It might sound strange or even silly to mention Beethoven here, but his way of generating not just melodic material from a motif, but also larger tonal relationships that unfold and span the entire work, thereby connecting the small scale and large scale, is continually a strong model and source of inspiration for me. The scholar and pianist Charles Rosen explains how Beethoven changed everything in music:

“In Haydn, everything comes from the theme…out of the character of the theme and its possibilities of development arises the shape of the musical discourse. Beethoven carried this a step further: the relation between large-scale structure and theme was equally intimate, but both were worked out together…the conception of the entire work took form gradually and influenced the details of the individual themes.”

(Charles Rosen, “Sonata Forms”, pgs. – 177-178)

If the larger structure and the smaller details are all spun from the same stuff, the work has a continuity that will breathe through it, no matter how spiky or thorny its character may be. The work unfolds and develops organically and thus corresponds to the natural world, in which the hugest objects are all governed by the same tiny particles. The idea of music or any art as a mimesis of nature may be older than dirt, but we’re still looking for order in all the chaos and still trying to find a way to represent the journey from chaos to order, no matter how inverted the approach. Nature itself seems to keep beckoning us, as physicists look for answers about the nature of gigantic black holes by speculating on the tiniest quantum-sized particles that pass into them. A desire for unity is in any case part and parcel of my own creative drive, and manifests itself strongly on “Highway Rider.”

The shape of the two-part motific melody above suggests two tonalities, F# Minor and C# Major. Moving the lens further away from the motif itself, one sees that these tonalities crop up a lot throughout the record, and they are always corresponding with each other, leading to each other, or standing in opposition to each other. Another important aspect of the motif is the role that the D-natural leading to the C# has – the third to last and second to last notes of that melody. Those two notes, and the interval of the flatted second that they comprise (and, that same interval separated by an octave’s length, the flatted ninth), provide much of the harmonic tension on the record that yearns for resolution.

As an improvising jazz musican who also composes written music, I have been waiting for a while to make this record – waiting for everything to line up in my consciousness and come forward and present itself. The allure of jazz for me has been the opportunity for unshackled spontaneous expression. The challenge of jazz has been to not have this spontaneous format become a kind of orthodoxy. It can become an orthodoxy of arbitrary expression: In keeping the written material merely provisional and not fully fleshed out, the formal and motific contours of jazz expression often remain arbitrary. A certain type of expression – the more Beethoven kind of expression that achieves connections between the large scale and small scale elements – will not readily come to light. There are exceptions in jazz. One great one for me is Thelonious Monk, composer and impoviser, and as I’ve written elsewhere, he is a huge model for me.

It is the motif’s narrative qualities specifically that are important. In the wordless abstract narrative of music, the motif is central to the work in the same way a theme is central to a novel. It is with us throughout the piece and becomes lodged in our memory; the meaning of it changes as the music unfolds, yet its identity does not change. For “Highway Rider,” I strived for a marriage between the non-arbitrary and the arbitrary – between this strong motific identity expressed in the written material and the more spontaneous expression afforded by the improvised material.

The arbitrary aspect of an improvised jazz solo is, of course, also its winning strength. A micro-narrative of a different sort will emerge from a worthy jazz solo. In comparison to written music, an improvised solo will express the intense, heightened subjectivity of the individual musician, reacting in real time to what he or she hears and feels. Jazz soloing, no matter how cohesively it fits with the music that surrounds it, is always for me a disruption of sorts: the best solos express an alluring incongruity with whatever given order there is. I waited for a while to make a record like “Highway Rider” because the interaction between the given order of music written with a high degree of specificity for a larger ensemble and the space allotted for the improvising soloist presents specific challenges that I finally felt ready to surmount only now.

Musicians, Orchestration

The soloist besides myself on the record is Joshua Redman, and I felt strongly that he would be the person who could find a way to address the specificity of the written music and still disrupt the prevailing order. Josh, one of my favorite musicians, can do that for a few reasons. First, he has an extra-quick learning curve – he was hearing the strings and winds for the first time in the studio, and quickly was making intuitive decisions about how to interact with them – when to play over them, when to defer to them, when to ignore them. That was really impressive and a pleasure to witness. Second, he has a strong sense of shape in everything he plays – there is always a direction in his solos, a sense of a beginning and a destination. Finally, the emotional contours of Josh’s playing are rich and satisfying for me, and in any context, no matter how dense, he is always directly dealing with the feeling of the music first and foremost, always playing with passion. That is so important.

I chose Jeff Ballard, Matt Chamberlain, and Larry Grenadier for their creativity, but also, for their musical maturity, and by that I mean their ability to give the music what it needs. In some instances, that is by playing something very simple and repetitive; in some other instances, it means something more busy, in other cases, I needed something to interact with – something in my face so to speak. These guys always know which direction to go and then do so much to set the mood for everything immediately. The presence of Larry, Matt and Jeff was indispensable for this music and gives the record much of its character. Each one of them, while deferring to the music and allowing it to bloom, is also able to assert his own voice within that music, and that is a worthy achievement.

One piece of music that’s huge for me is Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen. I’ve been looking at the score for years. It’s a unique score because each string player has a separate part. In most orchestral music, the strings are split into sections – violin 1, violin 2, violas, cellos and basses. The composer may call for the sections to be divided in two or sometimes three parts, but usually there are no more than 5 to 8 distinct voices in the strings. Strauss scored Metamorphosen for 23 strings exactly – 10 violins, 5 violas, 5 cellos and three basses – but gave each player an individual part: Instead of Violin 1 and 2, there is Violin 1, Violin 2, Violin 3, etc. all the way to Violin 10, and so on with the rest of the instruments. It’s like a mammoth chamber piece, but it’s an unmistakably orchestral sound. There are endless options – only a few players at once, one string soaring above all the rest, all the strings tutti, and so on. Of course there is the potential to write very densely, and Strauss’ piece is full of what I call “chunky” harmony. I used Strauss’ configuration of 23 strings on two of the pieces on “Highway Rider”: “Now You Must Climb Alone” and at the beginning of “Always Departing”. For the other tracks with orchestra, the 23 strings remain but act more as sections, and in addition there are three French horns, one bassoon, and one contrabassoon. The exception is “Don’t Be Sad”, which has only one horn, no contrabassoon, and no basses.

“Highway Rider” is influenced by a bunch of music – a bunch of classical scores I’ve lived with for a while, jazz performances and pop songs. Different people might hear different things. In terms of the writing for the orchestra and the way that would mesh with the band, there are a few orchestrator/arrangers that I’ve listened to closely who worked specifically with singers, and they may have rubbed off a little on this record: Francois Rauber for his work with Jacques Brel, Bob Alcivar’s arrangements for Tom Waits, and Francis Hime’s orchestrations for Chico Buarque. The way they all wrap the instruments around the voice – keeping the individual personality of the singer in the forefront while still writing richly and imaginatively for the orchestra – is instructive. They offer great examples of how to use the orchestra in a modern setting more generally – the excitement for me in those records is the mix of the more “classically” beautiful orchestral sounds with the idiosyncratic vocal style and rhythmic approach that is less polished but more “here and now”. Claus Ogerman is a model as well, particularly his stellar collaborative album with Michael Brecker, “Cityscape”, a long-time favorite of mine.

– Brad Mehldau, February, 2010