By James Hale | Published March 2017
From Jethro Burns to Vassar Clements to David Grisman, bluegrass musicians have demonstrated the strong links between indigenous Southern hill music and jazz. Since their first collaboration in 2011, mandolinist Chris Thile and pianist Brad Mehldau have explored that ground, too, with Mehldau’s attraction to harmonically rich pop music providing a strong bridge between the pair’s diverse backgrounds.
At the root of their connection is their mutual love of wringing every emotion from a song. On their virtuosic reworking of Gillian Welch’s Southern Gothic “Scarlet Town,” Thile employs muted strumming, slurs and rapid picking to provide stark contrast to Mehldau’s fulsome playing. Their take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” is reminiscent of guitarist David Bromberg’s expressive interpretations of standard blues material, with Mehldau transforming Dylan’s original guitar line into a ragtime introduction and Thile inserting some wry phrasing into his vocals. Joni Mitchell’s early song “Marcie” allows Thile to move well beyond bluegrass, with a restrained vocal and mandolin accompaniment.
Aside from the consistently high level of musicianship here, the real strength of the recording is the way Thile and Mehldau plumb the roots of American folk music without sounding either nostalgic or reductionist. In their hands, all the material—whether it’s Elliott Smith’s “Independence Day” or Ruairdi Dáll Ó Catháin’s 400-year-old “Tabhair Dom Do Lámh”—sounds completely contemporary.
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau: Disc One: The Old Shade Tree; Burweeds; Scarlet Town; I Cover The Waterfront; Independence Day; Noise Machine (33:53). Disc Two: The Watcher; Daughter Of Eve; Marcie; Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright; Tabhair Dom Do Lam (29:58).
Personnel: Chris Thile, mandolin, vocals; Brad Mehldau, piano, vocals.