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Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau

By Gene Santoro

Jazzin' Around

Photos: Michael Wilson

A new double album by the mandolinist and pianist provides a captivating entry point into the growing canon of jazz-bluegrass fusion.

Piano and mandolin are a musical odd couple, one that doesn’t fit into anybody’s genre expectations easily. Bluegrass, the mandolin’s natural American home, generally doesn’t have much use for pianos. Jazz mandolinists can be counted on the fingers of one hand… at least if you let most jazzers do the counting.

By itself, that’s almost a good enough reason for pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolinist Chris Thile to have released a double-album. The last twenty years, after all, have been nothing if not an era of self-conscious redefinition—even if that’s often yielded less substance than noise. Think of the swaggering metaphorical language, now so commonplace we hardly see it: genre-bashing, boundary-smashing, transgressive this or that.

It’s ironic how banal all this intended-to-shock language, like much of its attendant music, has become. With Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau, though, the music is what counts, and it’s far from banal.

They’re the right two players for the job. Both have spent years deliberately widening their musical frames. So their choices of material are thoughtful, and allow them to rework the idioms in their hands with depth and understanding. They’re not polyglot postmodern tourists snatching musical selfies against diverse backdrops.

Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town,” a contemporary blues, expands musically as it plumbs the narrative’s depths: piano lines gradually unfurl greater complexity against furious percussive mandolin, mandolin solos range into complex tonalities while radically deconstructing the tempo. “I Cover the Waterfront” opens with a distant mandolin rattle, like sounds filtering through foggy docks; subtly pointed piano underscores and plays call—and-response with Thile’s reedy vocals, creating a smoky ambience that evokes Billie Holiday’s era while updating it. Elliot Smith’s “Independence Day” foregrounds the fascinating mutations of sonic textures this unusual duo offers. Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” revels in counterpoint and shifting dynamics: between mandolin and piano, between instruments and Thile’s vocals, between Mehldau’s two hands. It’s an incisive musical rendition of the song’s gyring emotional portrait.

In the larger scheme of things, this is an excellent time for this pair to link up. Jazz and bluegrass have been converging for decades.

In the 1940s, bebop’s edgy, fractured rhythms and complex harmonies refracted the accelerated pace and sophistication of postwar America’s urban culture, as well as the assertiveness of postwar African Americans chafing at promises of equality long unfulfilled, at being a perpetual underclass economically and artistically.

At the same time, mandolinist Bill Monroe was shaping a new cultural voice for a disrespected rural white underclass. Taking old-timey string bands of the Appalachians—“hillbilly” music—he reformatted the jigs and reels and ballads transported from the British Isles hundreds of years earlier, adding hymns and original pieces. Kentucky-born Monroe and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, forged the new sound’s template.

Polar opposites? Sure… on the surface. But decades later, it’s also clear these two vectors of musical change arose from some shared coordinates.

The major stylistic ones: velocity, thickened harmonies, razor-sharp ensembles, foregrounded solos, and a stern emphasis on virtuosity, the finding of one’s own voice within the idiom. Chris Hillman, an ace bluegrass mandolinist who became a famous rocker with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, recalls the effect of 1950s bluegrass: “There was an energy to the music and freeform improvisation in the soloing, so it was like hillbilly jazz to me. These guys would sing beautiful three-part harmonies and then play great solos.”

Then too, bebop and bluegrass alike started as dance music, but both would evolve new forms of American chamber music.

Fast forward to the 1970s.

David Grisman, one of the outstanding mandolin players in any idiom of any era, studied and played with bluegrass greats from Monroe on down. But he’d also been in the midst of the 1960s San Francisco musical experiments by bands like the Grateful Dead.

In 1974, the Dead’s Jerry Garcia, who played bluegrass banjo before he played guitar, joined with Grisman and guitarist-songwriter Peter Rowan, a Monroe vet, for Old And In The Way. This quintet combined the hills-and-hollers sound and machine-tooled precision of bluegrass with rock tunes (“Wild Horses”) and counterculture anthems (“Panama Red”). Somewhat ironically, they made the best-selling bluegrass album in history to that point.

Like Garcia, Grisman was deeply enamored of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz. It informed his expansive vision: a big-tent meeting of American roots music, powered by complex compositions and virtuoso improvisation. In 1977, the David Grisman Quintet released its eponymous first album. Despite its standard-issue bluegrass lineup—mandolin, guitar, violin, banjo, bass—it shattered expectations about what this sort of ensemble could deliver, fused bluegrass and jazz in numerous ways that foreshadowed the next thirty years, and announced a radically new American chamber music.

Grisman’s compositions were remarkable: supple and shapeshifting, abounding in harmonic complexity and metrical surprises, bristling with taut ensemble interplay. Even jazz snobs—at least those under 30 at the time—had to give his soloists due respect, as they unwound long, slinky lines through Grisman’s demanding pieces. Like the best jazz improvisers, they combined a clear grasp of advanced harmonic theory with strikingly individual voices.

It was a stunning—and pivotal—achievement. From then on, bluegrass evolved offshoots like newgrass, which could describe anything from using electrified instruments to radically diverse material. All that coincided with the beginnings of a fascinating do-it-yourself bluegrass culture. Festivals, camps, and training workshops sprang up and multiplied across the country.

It was a stunning—and pivotal—achievement. From then on, bluegrass evolved offshoots like newgrass, which could describe anything from using electrified instruments to radically diverse material. All that coincided with the beginnings of a fascinating do-it-yourself bluegrass culture. Festivals, camps, and training workshops sprang up and multiplied across the country.

Today, bluegrass wannabes pack the sprung intensity of young athletes on the make, as they train at thousands of camps and festivals across the country—learning traditional repertoire and music theory, jamming among themselves and absorbing tips and tricks at pro-led workshops, drilling and competing, networking with their idols and swapping ideas. The result: they are among the best-schooled musicians around.

By the 1970s, jazz was also developing a new training armature, but for the opposite reasons. As its audiences (and bandstand opportunities) shrank, its longtime mode—oral history plus bandstand apprenticeships—became less viable. So formalized schooling in academic institutions, like classical music, became the norm. But academia brought mixed blessings. Where workshops bring interaction with working musicians, academic jazz programs often rely on transcribing famous solos, playing big-band charts, and the like. That format standardizes high technical results, but is a poor model for individualized thinking.

The best jazz conservatory grads have to find ways to reach back into the world, if they want their music to reflect their times. Mehldau is a case in point.

After his classical training, he studied jazz at the New School—one of the first academic institutions with a faculty of road veterans. Nevertheless, his education made him a self-described jazz snob who shrugged off earlier loves like Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Dead. Mastering influences as diverse as Oscar Peterson and German Romanticism, able to play different melodies simultaneously with both hands and improvise counterpoint, he became an in-demand sideman and then bandleader, most in settings well within the “jazz tradition” mold, like piano trios, and was hailed as a jazz up-and-comer.

About 2000, though, he fell in love with Radiohead’s remarkable album OK Computer. It cracked his world open. In 2007, he debuted his first concerto, The Brady Bunch Variations for Piano and Orchestra. He was scoring films in LA; his album Largo tapped electronic effects and rock musicians. On Brad Mehldau Trio Live, he revamped songs by Oasis and Soundgarden.

Chris Thile was one of bluegrass’s countless child prodigies. In his early teens, he became a child star with Nickel Creek. The platinum band strayed from hardcore bluegrass to crossover pop hybrids, which kept his ears opening. He studied “serious” music. And he learned from virtuoso predecessors like Grisman and Sam Bush, growing ever more expressive, scarily adept in multiple idioms, flexible and suggestive in tone, and faster than a speeding bullet when he needs to be.

Thile was in his mid-20s when a failed marriage inspired him to form the Punch Brothers, one of the Grisman quintet’s most dynamic, game-changing descendents. Their breakthrough album, Punch, was a sharp-eared, fascinating, and seamless weave of bluegrass, jazz, rock, and classical chamber music.

He’s continued to tackle new challenges in duos with the likes of Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. His vision won him a MacArthur “genius” award in 2012. He’s since replaced Garrison Keillor as host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”

These two Romantics searched for common ground early on. They first performed together at Carnegie Hall in 2011, four years after the Punch Brothers debuted “The Blind Leading the Blind” there. In 2015, they did two-night gig at the Bowery Ballroom—a great old grungy rock hall symbolically far from being identified with jazz or bluegrass—then recorded this double-album.

They changed their worlds. Now change yours. Give Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau a serious listen.

Gene Santoro has written a biography of Charles Mingus, Myself When I Am Real (Oxford University Press, 2001) and Highway 61 Revisited (Oxford 2004), about American music’s complex roots. His next project recounts his bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

© 2017 Chamber Music Magazine