Candidates for top 10 albums of 2002: Brad Mehldau - Largo
Warner Bros. Records
I guess this is technically a jazz record—I mean, it’s core is a piano-fronted jazz trio—but it’s so much thicker than that. Largo isn’t a set-up-some-room-mics-and-jam jazz record (although there’s super-impressive improvisation.) Instead, you’ll find scaffolded song structures and purposeful production that’s not as heavy-handed as textural overdubs tend to be on academic jazz records. Alright! All right. It is a jazz record. But Largo—which only deserves its name at fleeting moments throughout the album that are ultimately revealed as calculated context to juxtapose the more exciting ones—has distinct elements of hip hop, metal, salsa, rock, house, and blues (and includes covers of the Beatles and Radiohead and an homage to Black Sabbath) that all feel right.
Mehldau can shred and does. But he also engineers enough negative space to effectively emphasize his inevitable shredding. Ultimately, though, it’s the drums that drive the record and keep it compelling. There are a few spots that feature the monster drum chops you’d expect alongside this much piano-fluidity. But, mostly, the drummer’s job is restraint and basic bed beats (see “When It Rains”). The drums are turned way up—which I dig—and it doesn’t hurt that they’re laid down by a few dudes who are best described as rockstars-of-the-studio, Jim Keltner and Matt Chamberlain—sometimes simultaneously, as in “Paranoid Android”—with a little love from actual jazz-hand Jorge Rossy, in a few key moments.
In fact, all three focal instruments are super-crisp. Credit producer Jon Brion for much of the above. He’s the same dude who nailed those unassuming solos on The Wallflowers’s Bringing Down the House and would go on to produce two artists that also have 2002 top album candidates, Spoon and Of Montreal (in addition to Kanye West and Fiona Apple. He also wrote music for I Heart Huckabees.)
In sum: transcendent jazz-trio with tasteful chops and pop-caliber production.
Highlights: “When It Rains”; “Dusty McNugget”; “Wave / Mother Nature’s Son”; “Sabbath”; “Paranoid Android”