Why am I so surprised that two artists with infinite potential have expanded their boundaries further once more? I don't want, nor will I allow this to turn into me fanning my endless appreciation for Chris Thile (of whom my deep love can be easily traced among these hallowed halls) and what he's done for music as a whole. After all, this album was a collaborative effort succeeding in large part due to Brad Mehldau changing the narrative under which Thile generally operates. To put that into context, and I'm speaking more to the Thile fans here, we've never heard him like this before. Not in Nickel Creek, not solo, not in Punch Brothers, not in the pop up groups (The Goat Rodeo Sessions) or alternative duo's he's worked with in the past (Edgar Meyer, Michael Davies, Bela Fleck; the list goes on). As a result we're given a new soundscape to breathe in, assess, appreciate, cling to...obsess over...you get the picture.
Thile, for those unfamiliar, is my favorite artist. There are no other contenders. A world renowned mandolin player, he was lauded as a prodigy from a young age. He has built an empire of innovation and beauty mainly in the realm of progressive bluegrass. And while adding 'progressive' to any genre basically means they're using it only as a base and aren't bound to that mold, Thile's roots do firmly lie there. Truth be told, I'm far less familiar with Mehldau's career, though I do love Ode (trio) and Highway Rider (solo) and can attest that he's viewed in an equally impressive light, having built a resume that can only be matched by the world's preeminent musicians. It's to the point where neither musician is sought after, but rather they're the one's doing the seeking. Carefully choosing each project to further explore their passion of sound and it's expansion, challenging both themselves and hopefully, even if it's inadvertently, their peers as well.
Normally when an album is released I like to spend at least a week with it, but it's only been a couple days since Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau's record has been released and I can't seem to think about anything else so I'm going to write about it in an effort to free my mind. I've also found solace in the fact that upon the first listen through I was struck with the realization that this album would take much longer than a week to truly reveal itself, which might come as no surprise considering I'm still pulling new things from Thile's 2011 collaboration The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau often feels like an artistic contradiction, the intricacies that both artists employ they do with machine like precision yet it's the looseness and freewheeling nature of it all that solidifies it's beauty and charm. Nothing is forced, and the spaces in-between in which they largely operate is borderline uninhabitable by lesser talents. With both artists, masters of their crafts in both the technical and creative sense, you knew the talent would be undeniable, but what swept me away was the seamless molding of sounds that wouldn't necessarily blend naturally.
In case I haven't made it clear by saying it outright, Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau is spectacular. Plain and simple. Our musicians, despite hailing from different genres, have a strong commonality in that both jazz and bluegrass, two of the oldest sounds in American music, are left very open for interpretation. With this in mind the two go to work. I think the best thing about this is that it touches on so many styles within the respective genres that it essentially removes the word 'genre' from the equation. This notion is easier to spot in the reimagining of the album's cover songs, which all take on new life under the love and care of their current, but temporary, owners. Whether it be the classic Johnny Green - Edward Heyman tune "I Cover The Waterfront," a classic they extend and remold (while also birthing Thile's potential as a top notch lounge act) or on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," a track in which you'd likely see Thile excel, and he does, but it's Mehldau's quasi ragtime-esque playing on the piano that sets the song on fire. Even on the covered tracks that I'm quite familiar with, a la Elliot Smith's "Independence Day," I was swallowed whole by their interpretation, presenting the track sans vocals to great effect.
As good as their reimaginings are, it's the originals that shine brightest. As I'm sure you're all acutely aware of by now, it's a rarity (for me personally) that I'm presented with a sound more soothing than Thile's soft vocals over the playfully serene melodies born from his mandolin, but when you hear Mehldau's addition, the life he adds, you're forced to wonder why these two haven't collaborated on, well, everything. Whether it's penned by Thile ("Noise Machine"), Mehldau ("The Watcher"), or both ("The Old Shade Tree"), these two play off one other beautifully, weaving in and out of the shared melodies as if they've been doing it together their entire lives, which compliments their individual artistry on every level as well as their connection as a duo.
Outside of mentioning an artist or group's base of operations I rarely talk about music in relation to the region it's from. With so much access I feel that sounds from all over the globe are being explored everywhere now. However, there is something distinctly American about the work we have here. The meeting of jazz and bluegrass, even now, doesn't sound all that appealing to me, until you realize how wonderfully they really do complement one another. Initially I thought it was the result of two world class artists making it work, and it is in the sense that they make it work SO well, but when you hear Mehldau's country toned jazz on his original "Tallahassee Junction" or how well he blends his sound into the dominantly bluegrass Gillian Welch track "Scarlett Town," you realize that at the core of it all this music stems from the same place, that the lines that divide the genres cease to exist, and that the separation isn't all that, well...separating. Don't just take my word for it, spend some time with these two, see for yourself. I promise you it's worth it.