Anne Sofie von Otter is not at her first crossover album. Back
in 2001, she recorded a disc with Elvis Costello, and in 2006,
did an album of ABBA covers. So this new recording with Brad
Mehldau doesn’t come as a big surprise. It marks von Otter’s
migration to the Naïve label, however, and it seems that
this French label is banking on developing her first and foremost
as a non-classical singer. Time will tell.
As for Brad Mehldau, he is one of today’s most inventive
jazz pianists, and is not only prolific, but very popular. He
released an album in 2006 with Renée Fleming called Love
Sublime, which featured songs that he penned. While it doesn’t
seem to have been a big success - Mehldau’s attempts at
modern lieder on that disc are perplexing at best - he has continued
to write songs that go outside the jazz genre.
Hence this set, which features two discs: the first of original
songs by Mehldau, and the second which contains 13 popular songs,
ranging from a Lennon/McCartney tune (Blackbird), to some Swedish
songs, by way of a number of French chansons.
I’ve been a fan of Brad Mehldau’s music for many
years, and own all of his albums. I’m very familiar with
the style of his music - both the standards he performs, and
his original compositions. I never really “got”
the Fleming album; I found that the songs were trying too hard
to be “art songs”, and I couldn’t get into
the overall concept. So I was pleased that the Love Songs
are much more accessible; gone is the exaggerated chromaticism
that made the earlier songs a bit cringe-worthy. Here is the
more romantic Brad Mehldau; the one who touches a nerve with
his sweet, melodic music, but avoids the treacle. These seven
songs, based on lyrics by e e cummings, Philip Larkin and Sarah
Teasdale, show a composer more at home in a familiar genre than
on his previous outing. Many of these wouldn’t make it
onto mainstream radio stations, but their boldness isn’t
excessive, and after a few listens, they become comfortable.
Mehldau’s music is creative and is much more than mere
accompaniment. He shows off his skills as pianist and arranger,
here, often providing lush soundscapes, and, at other times,
more staid melodies.
From the first song, von Otter shows that she is comfortable
with this type of music. While I find her warbling vibrato just
a bit too much in the first song, It May Not Always Be So,
I got used to it in the others. It still annoys a bit, though,
and I don’t feel that this much vibrato is necessary.
But she sails through this music with her usual wonderful voice
- I very much like her recordings of Mahler, Grieg and many
other composers’ songs - and the two performers do fit
together quite well. Because is a more traditional song,
almost a ballad, with a slow, minimal piano melody and much
more controlled vibrato from von Otter.
Some of the songs can be a bit harsh, but nothing like the songs
Mehldau wrote for the Fleming disc. Child, Child, for
example, features a fragmented rhythm and some chromaticisms
that may shock those who buy this set for the second disc. Twilight
comes out with some interesting arpeggios on the piano, behind
So on to disc two; the pop disc. von Otter is a consummate singer,
and she moves smoothly into this genre, notably with impeccable
French diction. Oddly, this disc is at a noticeably higher volume
than the first, and seems to be recorded in a different manner,
with the voice much more present than on the first disc. This
is not to say that the piano is relegated to the background,
but Mehldau is clearly playing second fiddle here. Nevertheless,
his accompaniment is excellent.
Von Otter cuts down on her vibrato for these pop songs; it’s
a shame that she didn’t do the same for the first disc.
Here, it sounds natural and balanced, and in a song like Joni
Mitchell’s Marcie, it is nearly perfect. In fact,
Marcie may be the best song on the pop disc, even though
von Otter’s diction is a bit unnatural. Calling You,
from the movie Bagdad Café, is beautiful as well.
The performance of Blackbird, however, sounds a trifle
twee, and von Otter sounds like she’s too far from the
song; her voice just floats over the music instead of taking
control of it. It should be noted that Mehldau’s improvisations
on Blackbird, with his piano trio, are magnificent; he
gets a brief solo here, which shows off his skills on the keyboard.
In fact, he puts von Otter to shame, as his solo is so much
better than her singing.
All in all, this set addresses three groups of people. Classical
music fans who know von Otter’s work, and who may be tempted
by this crossover album; jazz fans, familiar with Mehldau’s
recordings; and people who are interested in pop standards well-sung
by a woman with an excellent voice, accompanied by a wonderful
pianist. If you fit into one of these groups you may like one
or both of the discs. Personally, I very much like the Mehldau
songs, but will probably not listen to the second disc very
often. Interestingly, while this set is just over 79 minutes,
and could fit on one disc, Naïve put it on two discs, so
the music is separated. It is sold for the price of a single
Whatever your pleasure, there is much to appreciate here: a
great mezzo-soprano, an excellent pianist, and some fine music.