Although the days when Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley could have pop hits with jazz singles are long gone, one of the many great things about Brad Mehldau's new album, Largo (Warner Bros), is the possibility that it heralds a return to at least some kind of commerce between the two forms. Despite all the mostly lame attempts to harness hip hop to jazz, there hasn't really been much genuine interplay with pop since an ailing Miles Davis took to playing songs by Prince, Cyndi Lauper and (even more bizarrely) Scritti Politti.
It's not just that Mehldau, who is rapidly proving to be the most interesting pianist of his generation, covers songs by Radiohead (as he has done before) or Lennon and McCartney; nor is it that the whole enterprise follows some weird Los Angeles pop aesthetic. No, Largo actually sounds popular, dammit. For a jazz album this is almost sacrilege, and if Mehldau isn't careful he could end up becoming popular himself. Certainly, his album passes the High Fidelity test with flying colours: if Largo is played over the sound system of a record shop, people will ask what it is and buy it. I've seen it done and it works every time, perhaps most dependably with the killer opening track, "When It Rains".
Part of the pop appeal must come from the album's producer, Jon Brion, who has worked with Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright. But this isn't a case of someone being called in just to add sweetener to the mix. The project began when Mehldau started visitinga West Hollywood nightclub called Largo, where Brion was running a weekly session. A year later, Mehldau – who's clearly not an impulsive sort of guy – asked to sit in, and later the club's owner, Mark Flannagan, suggested making an album.
Brion's role involved everything from arranging microphone placements to playing guitar "treatments". Although Largo has the unmistakeable sound of an LA studio album – there are even atavistic traces of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman or Van Dyke Parks in the occasionally overblown arrangements – the whole thing was recorded live, with no overdubs. While the musicians included the Mehldau Trio regulars Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy, the net is cast much wider than usual. Star session drummer Jim Keltner lends his trademark heavy thump to a number of tracks; there's a horn section with oboe, bassoon and French horn; basses and drums are sometimes doubled; and Mehldau plays vibes and "treated" piano.
Not all of the tracks are as good as the opener, or indeed the wonderful versions of "Paranoid Android" or "Dear Prudence", but the ratio of hits to misses on the album is very high. If you want to turn someone on to jazz, don't get them some dumb compilation; buy them Largo instead.