The whole time pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolinist & singer Chris Thile took the stage of Austin's Paramount Theater, one couldn't help but wonder why this hadn't happened long ago. The master piano player, known worldwide as a game changer in the jazz genre, seemed the perfect fit for the man recognized by the nebulous MacArthur Foundation this past year for stretching the boundaries of bluegrass music. Thile always had a jazz sound to his frenetic, mellifluous style of plucking and Mehldau always had a little bit of everything else. For the last date on their duo tour together before parting ways this past Saturday, April 20, this pair proved they are a perfect match.
The hour and a half set spanned material from both musicians and a few choice covers of Bob Dylan, Elliott Smith, and Fiona Apple, which seemed appropriate considering Mehldau and Thile's close ties to producer Jon Brion who's friends with the late Smith and the effervescent Apple. The Brion connection alone would seem like this pairing would have been a foregone conclusion some time prior, but it would seem that this pairing occurred solely because timing is everything. The constantly touring Mehldau went on a month of dates with Thile after two months of duo shows-- throughout March with drummer Mark Guiliana and February with pianist Kevin Hays. This pair, however, had a natural playful rhythm to them that felt all too warm.
Former tales of the shows from this month included a rumor that Mehldau would sing at some point in the evening and he did not disappoint, backing Thile in the opening song, the Bob Dylan tune "Scarlet Town". The rest of the evening, while still having a feeling of a recital, had an infectious ebullience which one could easily marvel. 16-year-old me was clearly enjoying watching the process of music I had spent the last decade hearing on various albums-- the crafting the the Mehldauian ostinato, his jumping of octaves, the ease of falling to the familiar rhythms. It was even more exciting to see the all the recognizable faces the two made when Mehldau and Thile were really getting into things, there's nothing like the O-face of a jazz soloist (S-face?).
Yet much like any live performance, it's interesting to see what the ultimate product of an evening, adrift in a sea of time, will ultimately produce. There's rumors afloat of studio recordings of Mehldau and Thile or with Guiliana. There's certainly interesting compositions that have arisen from these evenings like Mehliana's "Elegy for Amelia Earhart", Mehldau's "Dunno" (cue a rash of untilted songs the world over getting changed to this so colloquially), or Thile's sweeping "Daughter of Eve" which required Mehldau to break out the sheet music at this point of the evening. One would hope the music made that festive Saturday night wasn't a "you had to be there moment"; considering these two are both Nonesuch recording artists, I'm holding out hope that folks outside the beautiful Paramount Theater would get the chance to hear this soon.
Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.