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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau likes crossing musical borders. He's improvised to songs by the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. He's also written songs for operatic soprano Renee Fleming. And now, with his new, two-CD set "Highway Rider," he's created a large-scale work for chamber orchestra and jazz ensemble.

Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN: You could say that all jazz is theme and variations. You take a tune like George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me"...

(Soundbite of song, "Someone to Watch Over Me")

LUNDEN: ...and then the musicians improvise variations based on the chord progression.

(Soundbite of song, "Someone to Watch Over Me")

LUNDEN: For "Highway Rider," Brad Mehldau says he decided he wanted to tackle theme and variations in a really big way by starting with something really small: a short musical idea.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRAD MEHLDAU (Musician): So, that's sort of a two-part theme. It's got one thing, and then a reply to it. And that generates a lot of the melodic material on the record. And also, in a different way, it generates tonal relationships on the record.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: And all of the 15 songs on the two-CD set come, to a greater or lesser degree, from that one, tiny musical motif.

Mr. MEHLDAU: Sometimes, it's more overt. So, for instance, on one called "Capriccio," there's sort of this...

(Soundbite of music, "Capriccio")

Mr. MEHLDAU: The opening of that melody is really, literally...

(Soundbite of music, "Capriccio")

Mr. MEHLDAU: ...you know, just put in a different rhythmic context.

(Soundbite of music, "Capriccio")

LUNDEN: It turns into a wistful jazz waltz.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Or morphs into a gnarly urban soundscape.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Brad Mehldau says that for him, all of this musical transformation has a kind of extra-musical effect.

Mr. MEHLDAU: There is this narrative that I feel, and that I was thinking about the more I wrote it, of traveling and leaving and coming back.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Pop musician Jon Brion produced the album. He says he admires Brad Mehldau's creative wanderings.

Mr. JON BRION (Producer, "Highway Rider"): I just like the fact that he keeps changing it up, and I think that this is just another example of that.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRION: Some people may not be a fan of tense harmony and go, what is he doing? Some people may go, wait, I wanted a bunch of piano solos. What's this, you know, 20th-century, classical-influenced, jazz-merging craziness? And some people may just hear it as sublime and go, why doesn't he do that all the time?

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Mehldau has stretched his sonic palette on "Highway Rider" to include a chamber orchestra with strings, horns and contrabassoon.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Mehldau says this unorthodox group of instruments gave him interesting colors to play with.

Mr. MEHLDAU: So, it's kind of a dark sound, which I think I just love in a lot of music I listen to: this dark, reedy, rich bass.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: In a higher register, playing the role of musical protagonist, is Joshua Redman on sax.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: He and Brad Mehldau have been friends and musical colleagues since the early 1990s. Redman says as ambitious as "Highway Rider" is, there's one thing that always strikes him about Brad Mehldau's compositions.

Mr. JOSHUA REDMAN (Saxophonist): His music just grooves. I mean, for all the complexity and all the harmonic rigor and all the technical prowess and all the lyricism, beneath it all is this incredible groove. His feel is unassailable. He has the best groove on the planet.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Carnegie Hall just announced that Brad Mehldau will be its composer-in-residence next season, and "Highway Rider" will be performed live in the main auditorium.

In the meantime, the two-CD set is available on Nonesuch Records.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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