Mandolinist Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau have been playing together for a little while now. I got to see them play together in Austin back in 2013 and was certainly impressed, wondering why this hadn’t happened before. To steal from my exposition of almost four years 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 [in 2012] 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.” This same rationale still applies now with the release of their double album out now on Nonesuch.
This is an album that’s the brilliance one would expect from these two. Mehldau is an interesting creature. With his trio, there’s the sense of play but always a heaviness that he evokes. The heaviness is written all over his face, an attribute that should get a few more props since his face in performance is just as interesting as his ostinatos. However, something new seems to switch with him in the duo format. Sure, he’s frequently a joy to hear, but something about playing off just one other performer seems to evoke a different sort of playfulness. His trills skip just a little more; his comping has just a touch more snap. Mehldau can get like this — with Mark Guiliana, with Kevin Hays, with Joshua Redman — but with Thile there’s something more here.
Thile, who stays busy as he continues with his various musical endeavors along with now hosting A Prairie Home Companion, is bringing it. His fingers fly on the mandolin, his voice reaches all the great heights that make him such a constant aural delight. You could really listen to Thile all day, let him lilt you off to some dreamland. As a composer, he’s a triple threat. His disc 1 closer, “Noise Machine”, has all the ramped up qualities of Thile’s best compositions, very reminiscent of the work he wrote when Punch Brothers was first taking form. In that same regard, Mehldau’s composition, “The Watcher”, has the same rolling on the tracks quality that his songs can tend to take. In their own material, it’s interesting hearing how these men play with the roles they have written for themselves time and again and how they play with the role that left for the other. They truly do sound great together.
However, as any great Mehldau album is wont to do, the covers are noteworthy, and make up a good half of this collection of songs. Yet in their versions of Bob Dylan, Elliott Smith, Joni Mitchell, or late 16th /early 17th century Irish harpist and composer Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin, every song feels as natural as though it were birthed from their instruments. For technicians like these gentlemen, who have played for years as virtuosos and know how best to express themselves to the point that the nuts and bolts stay under the hood, it’s yet another reason why they make such a great pair.
When you get right down to it, it shouldn’t be a hard sell to be interested in a new Brad Mehldau album. He’s on a heavy clip right now of interesting releases of assorted configurations, never slowing like a shark in water. The same could also be said of Chris Thile, who was always making something interesting long before shadowy benefactors gave me five years of large checks and the rest of the world called him a genius. What we have here is finally the physical product that five years of collaborations have made. In 2013, on 4/20, I schlepped up to Austin and got to witness an amazing jazz concert that I only got to think about every now and again. Here and there throughout that tour, others probably got that same feeling, wondering if such musical mastery would disappear into the vapor, some legend that we would tell about about of the best jazz pianists in the game and one of the best bluegrass musicians around got together for some dates and blew people’s minds. We have a record of this now. The legend has a form. People can hear and verify it now, and they should. Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile made a double album together, and it is indeed what the legend says it is.
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau’s self-titled double album is out now on Nonesuch Records.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.