ALBUM: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
ARTIST: Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
Album release date: January 27
What happens when you get two massively talented, frightfully cerebral musicians in a studio for three days? You get great technical mastery, for sure: but you also get a deep sense of honest affectivity and emotion. At least, such is the case with the recent collaborative effort from mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and classically trained jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Aware of the rules, but not hindered by them, these two celebrated artists manage to bring their vastly different instruments together in a way that is nothing short of surprising.
Many people have heard by now of Chris Thile, who was winning Grammies by the time he was a teenager and went platinum with his prodigy-saturated bluegrass band Nickel Creek, all before going on to form Punch Brothers (see my review of their latest album here). When he isn’t touring with them, he’s hosting A Prairie Home Companion, and writing a topical song for the program each week. In between work gigs he’s helping his wife soothe their new baby boy. The man is breathlessly busy and constantly whirring with creative output.
Brad Mehldau cuts a quieter figure than the eccentric Thile: notoriously media-shy, he rarely takes interviews and isn’t one to be seen “about town”. You’d be more likely to find him either at home reading the likes of Rilke, Goethe, and Kierkegaard (“ …music yokes together the feeling of attainment and the feeling of loss,” he once said as a sage 29-year-old), spending time with his family, touring with his trio, or adding to his massive opus. Within certain circles that fly under the Super-Star radar, Mehldau is revered as one of the finest, most ingenious jazz pianists of the century.
The album, named simply for the men who play on it, features 11 songs and unfolds over a dense seventy minutes. It opens with The Old Shade Tree, a tune which savors strongly of Thile ala Punch Brothers, even with Mehldau’s rainy jazz piano pulsing throughout it. The tune was purportedly written by both men, which may explain why the lyrics are obscure and fragmented (not to mention, difficult to decipher as they float from Thile’s throat, which can sound like a bell one minute and a lonesome bird the next): both men are richly gifted in letting emotion tell a story via their instruments, and don’t compulsively rely on words for everything. While coming from vastly different disciples, Thile and Mehldau share similar philosophies regarding art: it is for getting back to the pulse of things, the open ended mystery of things. There is honesty instead of irony; hope instead of pessimism; art instead of formula: and, at times, nebulous, passionate blooms of notation instead of a concrete narrative.
A handful of covers pepper the collection – Gillian Welch’s Scarlett Town takes on a complex hue as both musicians push and pull the melody through technical runs and solos, teasing out layers hitherto unknown and unheard. Independence Day honors the late Eliott Smith, sans vocals; the sound is simultaneously poppy and melancholic, like a person wearing a chicken suit in a downpour, with no where to go. Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice Its Alright is the most popular tune on the album, likely because of its beats per minute: it, along with the album taken as a whole, highlights the fact that the piano and mandolin are both essentially percussive instruments (and offers a clue into why this unlikely pairing works as well as it does). On the Water Front is my favorite tune on the album: the song, made popular by Sinatra in his day, maintains its romantic appeal, and in fact comes across more sincere when sung by Thile, who is refreshingly unhindered by farce and swagger. The thin fellow with striped socks, contorting around his small plinking instrument, has a magnitude that belies his size.
““When they invented the mandolin,” Thile says, “it was as if they were trying to come up with the least efficient means of extracting noise from a piece of wood. It’s very hard to make grand, romantic gestures on a mandolin, and there are times, particularly when playing Bach, that you long for just a little more sustain. But for better or worse it’s my voice, and the trade-off comes with increased intimacy. It’s like you’re beckoning the audience closer: ‘C’mere, I’ve got something to tell ya.’”
Somehow, the mother instrument – which is rich and sustaining where the mandolin is piquant and plucky – manages, under Brad Mehldau’s skillful hand, to provide space for Thile’s chops to shine, for the most part. Admittedly, there are sections in the album that just feel weird, drawn-out, and dominated by jazz piano: but all-in-all, these two masters make their obsessively honed craft sound like it’s as effortless as droplets of water rolling off a duck’s back.