When progressive bluegrass mandolinist Chris Thile and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau get together, the resulting album is a wholly enjoyable mix of jazz balladry and technical jams. Thile is well known in the bluegrass scene for his innovative work with Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and for his many solo projects and collaborations. Mehldau’s resumé is similarly broad, with a raft of albums with his piano trio, collaborations with guitarist Pat Metheny and John Scofield, and a wide range of other work.
For all the variety within the two men’s respective careers, it’s interesting that this album ends up mostly having a languid, melancholy vibe. Maybe that’s a function of the duo’s cover choices, or maybe it’s just this particular unusual sonic combination of piano and mandolin. Either way, that mood is set in “The Old Shade Tree”, the album’s opening song. Mehldau opens the song with a relaxed but very Thile-esque chord progression, throwing in a bit of jazzy flavor while Thile chugs along in accompaniment mode. He strums his muted strings as a sound effect while Mehldau plays, eventually coming in on vocals and opening up his playing. At six and half minutes long, the song has plenty of space for the duo to improvise while still adhering to a general verse-chorus structure. On the record, the song is credited to both men, but boy does it sound like one of Thile’s more dramatic Punch Brothers songs rearranged for this collaboration.
Lyrically the song is oblique as Thile angrily sings to a romantic partner about chopping down the old shade tree in a series of evocative couplets that don’t add up, at least to me, to a coherent story. It doesn’t help that Thile yo-yos between his standard singing voice and falsetto warbling during the lyrics, making deciphering the words a bit harder.
The other originals on this album cover some interesting ground. “Tallahassee Junction” is an upbeat jazz instrumental that resolutely remains at a jaunty walking pace despite considerable 16th note wandering from both men. It also highlights how important Mehldau’s left hand is to keeping the duo on task, providing the low end and the speed throughout the six-minute exploration. Thile’s “Noise Machine” is, for me, the record’s highlight, a distinctly personal song about dealing with a baby overnight. The refrain, “Your mother is a hero”, seems like a genuine sentiment from a man who spends a huge portion of his job on the road. Musically, Mehldau’s warm left-hand chords do the heavy lifting to support Thile’s vocals, while his right hand and the mandolin swirl around, filling in the gaps between lyrics.
Mehldau’s “The Watcher” is another instrumental, one that drifts in mood from slightly creepy to unsettled to warm and lovely. This is a piece that gives both musicians ample time to shine and highlights their interplay. Just about two-thirds of the way through, though, Mehldau takes an extended solo that finds Thile retreating to mostly muted chunking accompaniment. That track leads into Thile’s nine-minute jam “Daughter of Eve”, a song based around a bluesy, slightly funky main riff. This seems too long on its face, but the piece is constructed in distinct, interesting ways designed to keep the listener engaged. Eventually, the riff retreats into a much calmer, quiet section, and Thile begins singing. This quiet section extends into the highly technical middle of the piece, where notes from Thile and Mehldau tumble over each other with minimal chord work. The mood and intensity grow darker until Thile returns to singing. Finally, about seven minutes in, the original riff returns in Mehldau’s left hand while Thile solos around it, gradually joining Mehldau in an all-out jam before the song finishes out quietly.
Then there are the covers. Both Thile and Mehldau have a history of interesting covers drawn from all over the music spectrum, and that continues here. There’s “Scarlet Town”, which doubles the running time of the original Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings song. The duo spices up the menacing verses with ambling jazzy interludes, which makes for a compelling push and pull throughout the song. This is also the only time on the album where Mehldau sings, joining Thile on the chorus with a deep baritone harmony. “Independence Day” finds Thile and Mehldau doing an Elliot Smith cover and taking the interesting tack of removing the vocals. It makes for a pleasant, poppy experience, but it’s a little strange. Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie” turns into a lovely, melancholy jazz ballad here, and demonstrates how an acoustic guitar riff can be totally transformed when transferred to the piano.
The jazz standard “I Cover the Waterfront” becomes a sad but compelling seven-minute exploration in the hands of Thile and Mehldau. Thile’s aching vocals take center stage as he puts his mandolin away for the vast majority of the song, while Mehldau works in subtle accompaniment mode. It’s easy to envision this song in a smoky club 70 years ago. Bob Dylan’s rueful “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” ends up being the album’s most upbeat song. The duo once again takes a pop song and nearly double its original length trading solos. The difference here is their positive-sounding spin on the song allows them to do some of their fastest and flashiest playing on the record, which makes it almost fun. And that’s a nice change of pace.
Thile and Mehldau make a pretty great duo, but it’s also an idiosyncratic one. Both men have done explorations in this vein before, but for the most part, this album feels like Thile is playing around in Mehldau’s world. It’s jazzy and often downbeat and pretty far away from Thile’s bluegrass milieu. But fans who have followed Thile through his digressions into Bach partitas and other unusual collaborations will be primed for this one. For Mehldau fans, there is a unique chemistry here as he finds ways to work around and with the mandolin, which is sonically a far cry from his usual trio work and even notably distinct from his collaborations with guitarists. It’s a record that is both loose and precise, as the two spend a lot of time listening and feeding off each other in the moment but have also clearly planned out a lot of the structure ahead of time.