Review: Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile

Wigmore Hall
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. All rights reserved

Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile
(Wigmore Hall, Friday 16 September 2011; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Pianist Brad Mehldau‘s concert with Chris Thile, dubbed ‘King of the Mandolin’, was a real one-off. Difficult to call in advance, the two virtuosi had an easy and natural rapport which translated into a beautiful improvisatory flow, drawing on popular and American folk repertoires for its flavour. Mehldau had invited Thile to join him for one of his series of four curated concerts at the Wigmore Hall – the first time they’d played a full concert together.

Thile’s 25-minute opening spot won over those unfamiliar with his playing with an exquisite, light touch on the fretboard and soulful vocals, neither of which were amplified. When he gathered speed in true bluegrass style, the dazzling fingerwork was mesmerising, reminiscent of the Dillards in full flow. Thile loved the acoustics, commenting that “this hall sounds so incredible”, not lost on the reverent audience, either. Throughout the set you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, before the cheers erupted. He segued the Louvin Brothers’ ‘Broadminded’ (“That word … is spelled S-I-N”) with the traditional ‘Rabbit in the Log’, quipping that it was about “the inherent tastiness of rabbits”. “Brad asked if I’d play Bach”, and the three movements from the D Minor Partita were so sensitively interpreted that they might have been written for the mandolin (“… tuned the same as the violin”).

Mehldau then joined Thile, in intense but relaxed mode. He dropped his guard and was able to enjoy the meandering and thoughtful interplay as they blurred the roles of collaborator and accompanist, both so closely attuned that their instruments would fade in and out of focus, at some points virtually indistinguishable. There was a touch of Punch and Judy as Thile bounced around onstage and Mehldau struck taut, expressive poses at the keyboard. With Mehldau in shirtsleeves, they brought the house down on Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright‘, injecting a Joplin-esque ragtime feel, eliciting spontaneous applause with each solo. They drifted in to darker, moody territory with ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow’ from the tragically troubled songwriter Elliott Smith, and an elaborate hint of Nirvana’s ‘Teen Spirit’. Going upbeat, they traded sparkling, syncopated licks with touches of latin, funk and blues, and towards the end of their single set, Mehldau broke away from the folk melodies and in to his signature, ‘symphonic’ jazz style, letting rip with purposeful and joyous clarity.
Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile
Drawing by Geoff Winston – All rights reserved

The recital had the fresh and idiosyncratic feel of an ‘unplugged’ session, of intimate musical discourse between two acoustic masters, for which the audience showed its appreciation clearly and resonantly.

Categories: miscellaneous

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