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Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau: A Fine Bromance at the Mahaiwe


Perhaps it’s the macchiato. Singer/mandolinist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Chris Thile (at left), a musician for whom adjectives “tireless” and “extraordinary” spring to mind, drinks at least one a day. Rural Intelligence catches the thirty-two-year old in his East Village apartment, fresh off a yearlong world tour with his genre-defying band Punch Brothers. Resting? No. Among other things, he’s prepping for a duo performance with acclaimed jazz pianist Brad Mehldau (at right) on April 13, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. “Days are packed with all the stuff I’m dying to do, but haven’t had time to do,” he says, disarmingly affable. “I make myself a macchiato in the morning and get to work.” One imagines bedazzled neighbors catching mandolin strains of Bach, Bill Monroe, and… the Cars? Yes, the Cars. Wafting up the fire escape. Also Radiohead, the Beatles and the White Stripes, all coaxed from an absurdly limited instrument.

“I love to be a part of a completely non-segregated music community,” Thile says. Indeed, not long after debuting as a bluegrass wunderkind (first album at 13), Thile boldly took his humble mandolin where no mandolin had gone before.  His pop-conscious, “progressive bluegrass” teen trio Nickel Creek brought him international attention, and before long, he was collaborating with Bela Fleck, Dolly Parton (reported to have deflowered him on tour), fellow MacArthur genius, bassist extraordinaire and mentor Edgar Meyer, and cello great Yo-Yo Ma.

Speaking of Yo-Yo Ma, RI asks for confirmation of a rumor: Does the celebrated cellist really possess a repertoire of truly filthy jokes? Thile laughs. “I don’t know that there’s a musician with a beautiful musical soul who doesn’t also have a repertoire of absolutely awful jokes. That’s all I’ll say.”

bradOn Brad Mehldau, he is much more expansive, and, as when he speaks of music in general, effusive: “Brad came to an early Punch Brothers show at Bowery Ballroom (in NYC). Thank God no one told me he was coming — I’m a huge fan. When we met, I almost started hyperventilating. In my teens, I’d freaked out at his Art of the Trio Volume 4; I didn’t know improvisation could be that explosive, and yet with that kind of structural integrity. He was essentially composing beautifully at breakneck speed. After I heard that record, he became my gold standard for improvisational prowess.”

In addition to gaining inspiration from Mehldau’s improv skills, Thile also used the pianist’s genre-busting approach as a career-building template. (Mehldau’s recordings span Beatles chestnuts to Monk tunes to Soundgarden power ballad “Black Hole Sun.”) Now, both are accomplished composers and avid interpreters of multiple canons, confounding purists with impish glee. And, like adrenaline junkies, Thile and Mehldau share a compulsion to create on the spot, catching lightning in a bottle before a live audience. True, their wildly dissimilar instruments almost never share performance space, but Thile, ever ripe for a challenge, finds this emboldening. He laughs (again) when explaining the disparity between piano and mandolin: “The piano is one of the most brilliantly designed instruments in the world,” he says, “and the mandolin is one of the least. But for all the mandolin’s faults, it’s a very clear and precise instrument. It’s all about precision and clarity. Brad’s playing is also very clear and precise. That’s a fun thing. Brad, with his sensitivity, understands the mandolin’s limitations, and we both fill in the blanks, but also give it some space. I’m amazed at how he solves the problems of collaborating with a mandolinist.”

The duo’s first performance was unrehearsed and, as befits each musician’s penchant for border crossing, consisted of a Punch Brothers song and variations on tunes by Radiohead and Elliot Smith. Someone captured it all on YouTube, which is fine with Thile. “It was electrifying for me,” he says.

christhile“I don’t think of Brad as a jazz musician,” he continues. “I think of him as a great musician. He and I share a similar approach to music; the various good musics of the world are a helluva lot more similar than they are different. The differences that matter are differences in approach, a nuts and bolts approach — how are you gonna put the material that’s available to all of us together? Those are the differences that we’re interested in.”

Thile and Mehldau excel at figuring out how to navigate those differences in such a way that jazz aficionados discover pop, while popsters discover bluegrass, and rockers discover classical, and no pleasure gets labeled “guilty.” If ever there was a time to shamelessly bridge arbitrarily placed gaps, this is it.  —Robert Burke Warren

Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau
Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
14 Castle St.
Great Barrington, MA 01230

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