If you didn’t already know, Largo is Mehldau’s most divisive album because he abandons his trio-approach for a more pop-oriented album with experimentation that sometimes just isn’t jazz at all. Working with producer Jon Brion (who has produced albums for Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright; both pop musicians) as well as a small army of session musicians – in addition to his usuals, Larry Grenadier (bassist) and Jorge Rossy (drums), there’s two additional bassists, three additional drummers, plus Brion’s orchestration as well. And Mehldau himself plays vibes, plays with prepared pianos and with microphone placements to get different sounds out of non-prepared pianos.
That Largo is divisive should not be because Mehldau is experimenting; it should be because some of these songs are experimentation for experimentation’s sake. For example, “You’re Vibing Me” isn’t anything other than vibes and prepared piano (whoop-de-doo). Elsewhere, “Sabbath” isn’t anything other than an electric guitar riff and heavy drumming while Mehldau solos indifferently underneath (and it seems to go on for forever); likely the worst song in his discography. You could argue that these songs add variety that some of his preceding or forthcoming albums don’t have, but it’s a pretty hamfisted way of adding variety. Compare these failures to the practically breakbeat-jazz of “Free Willy” (which might be the most far-out song in Mehldau’s discography, who normally plays it too safe) or “Wave/Mother Nature’s Son” (whose use of vibes and prepared piano invalidates “You’re Vibing Me”‘s existence). (Other Beatles cover, “Dear Prudence,” is pretty inconsequential.)
Anyway, a cover of Brad Mehldau’s “Paranoid Android” was the first jazz song I ever consciously listened to (not the one featured on Largo though; it was a solo rendition that I don’t think is on any of his proper albums), sought out during the height of my Radiohead love in 2009. In fact, I had learned how to do the slow section of the song, but because I could not successfully transcribe the other sections in their entirety, I practiced that one section I did know by splicing it to the end of Bach’s “Prelude in C Minor, BMV 847” (“they’re both in C minor!” was my reasoning), a move that, in retrospect, should have inspired my roommate, the spirit of Bach and each member of Radiohead to kill me. Covering Radiohead is tricky business, but at least Mehldau handles it better than Christopher fucking O’Reilly (who released not one, but two collection of Radiohead covers, many songs of which are just note-for-note piano covers). The version of “Paranoid Android” that appears here isn’t an album highlight, but, at the very least, is the successful spirit of what this album was trying to achieve.
It’s tricky business because Radiohead covers are never going to be close to the real thing, and indeed, Largo’s version of “Paranoid Android” is flawed – massively so. The way they return to the groove after the slow section is laaaaazzzzzyyyy (and yes, I know the original did something similar, but it was still well-executed), and the horns added during that slow section is overly-dramatic (it would have been fine just to let Mehldau handle it himself). (Compare the use of horns here to the use of horns on the bookending highlights.) But it is 9 minutes that whizzes by like it was the original’s length, and the multiple percussionists whip up a mean groove during the – er – groove sections. But a year later, Mehldau would record a 17-minute version of it without any help on Live in Tokyo, including blending it naturally with an intro of his own creation in a way that might have been his career highlight; that one blows Largo’s version out of the fucking water.