(Concert Review) Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile, Mahaiwe, 4.13.13

Chris Thile

Chris Thile

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Review by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – There was one perfect moment in the unusual duo concert featuring pianist Brad Mehldau and mandolinist-singer Chris Thile at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. It occurred right at the beginning of a rendition of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” when the two refracted the melody, approaching it from different angles simultaneously, carving it into a Cubist, three-dimensional sound sculpture.

That singular moment displayed the enormous potential of this experimental pairing of two visionary musicians – the one who has gained renown as one of the greatest jazz improvisers and small ensemble leaders of our time (just last week, the New York Times called him “the most influential jazz pianist of the last 20 years,” and he is this generation’s Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea), the other the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” who came through the ranks of bluegrass in the Grammy Award-winning trio Nickel Creek and is now one-half of the Punch Brothers duo.

There’s no reason to think that these innovative musicians, who refuse to abide by preconceptions of genre, repertoire, or approach, couldn’t make beautiful music together.

The truth, however, is the promise of that moment failed to be realized during the rest of the duo’s 90-minute program. Rather than dancing together, the fusion of the two was more a case of two virtuosos inhabiting parallel – but distinct – universes. The pairing seemed more manufactured than organic; more a concept than a reality; more a case of forcing a square peg into a round hole.

Brad Mehldau

Brad Mehldau

This isn’t to say that there wasn’t plenty to appreciate in the playing of Mehldau and Thile. The former, especially, makes beautiful sounds at the piano, whether he is shifting the harmonics of a tune with an unusual pedal point or cascading the melody into a waterfall of sensations in the right. For fans of lightning-fast licks – and the Mahaiwe audience seemed heavily weighted toward these – Thile was a thrill a minute.

Thile also sang many of the songs, and while he can be an effective vocalist, his singing – as well as his occasional showboating – served more as a distraction to what was (potentially) happening musically. This was especially the case, for example, with “Knives Out,” but also in a finale of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” an acerbic, almost spiteful song given an odd, jaunty ragtime feel belied by the tunes lyrics, which may have been better ignored.

It was certainly a treat to have this cutting-edge program performed in the confines of the intimate and lovely Mahaiwe in the Berkshires. We’re probably the envy of many a town across the world for being witness first-hand to this pairing, and anytime one can see Mehldau or Thile perform can’t be all bad.

Chalk it up to a valiant attempt at something new and different, which is all anyone can ask.

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