Thile + Melhdau = Bluegrass + Jazz + Excitement

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There may be no better Boston venue than the Berklee Performance Center for this Sunday’s Chris Thile/Brad Mehldau matchup, presented by World Music.

Both musicians established themselves very young, like the school’s students, and both have drawn young listeners to genres not necessarily favored by the iPod generation –bluegrass and improv jazz – with inventive pop covers. Listeners come for the Radiohead, and stay for the virtuosity.

Thile picked up the mandolin at the age of 5, formed his Grammy-winning band Nickel Creek at 8, released his first solo album at 13, and won his first solo Grammy at 16. Nickel Creek attracted an enthusiastic following doing bluegrass and acoustic, as did Thile’s next, more progressive bluegrass outfit, the rollicking, charismatic Punch Brothers. In 2012, he won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Now 32, Thile has also become known for high-power collaborations, most notably with bassist Edgar Meyer, with whom he released an album in 2008, and then with Meyer, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and fiddle player Stuart Duncan, who together released the Grammy-winning “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” in 2011.

Thile has stretched and finessed the boundaries and capabilities of bluegrass, and of the mandolin, a small, not particularly rich-sounding instrument. His thematic flexibility and his mastery of the instrument are indisputable: his solos with the Punch Brothers and elsewhere are suspenseful and exciting; and to boot, he sings way better than it seems he has a right to.

Brad Mehldau (Courtesy, International Music Network)
Brad Mehldau (Courtesy, International Music Network)

But the Mehldau collaboration is a little different: a foray away from the safe string-based folk platform from which Thile’s historically hurled himself, musically, and toward a new one: jazz.

Mehldau’s website describes the two artists, both with Nonesuch Records, as “kindred spirits,” and concerts on the current tour as evenings of “classical transcriptions, pop covers, and original songs.” Like Thile, Mehldau has established himself as a leader in his field, jazz piano—and not just in the United States but abroad as well. He too has collaborated with the greats in his field— Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker—and others, like classical vocalists Renee Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter and singer-songwriters John Mayer and Elliott Smith—and marries his distinctive sound with everything from Bach to Paul Simon. (For those of you in Western Mass., they’re also performing at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. Saturday night, April 13.)

The question is how well Thile can integrate his sound with Mehldau's, how well will he can master another genre. Judging from what's available on YouTube, he's answered that question positively, whether it's Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” Elliot Smith’s “Bottle Up and Explode.”

In London, a 2011 performance of Bob Dylan's “Don't Think Twice It's All Right” brought down the house thanks to “Thile's sympathetic singing and increasingly animated improv-swapping between the pair,” the Guardian wrote at the time.

Watching those videos, I’m certainly impressed by the two men’s musicality, imagination, collaboration, technical skill.  But even for the most sophisticated listeners — Berklee students included — the more you listen, the more you discover.

Kris Wilton is an arts writer and editor whose writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, Photo District News, Art New England, Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Village Voice, among other publications.

Hear more Chris Thile at NPR Music.

And more Brad Mehldau.

This program aired on April 12, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.