Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile both play music in which technical virtuosity is front and center. The former is a jazz pianist, easily the most influential of his generation; the latter, an innovator of the bluegrass mandolin who won a MacArthur “genius” award last year. So their duo performance Friday night at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center was an achievement in itself. Their complex work translated to plain-faced beauty: simple, direct and exquisite.
That’s not to diminish either man’s abilities or expression thereof. Nothing could diminish the delicate grace of Thile’s mandolin solo on Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie” or the two-handed classically steeped chords with which Mehldau followed it. And what’s to undercut the glory of a bebop duet? Specifically, a duet on Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity,” whose name says it all; Mehldau gave it one of the most soulful readings he’s ever been known to play — everyone who’s accused him of lacking soul should hear this — and Thile threw every trick he had into his improvisation. And that’s without getting into the intricacies of the Celtic and Appalachian pastiches they worked through.
But what made this set magical was that the pleasures of Mehldau and Thile’s music were every bit as immediate and razor-sharp as pop at its rawest and most primal. “Shade Tree” was as much a virtuoso showcase as “Dexterity,” with Thile transforming his axe into a percussion instrument and Mehldau somehow getting the sound of a cello from the keys, but it built to a cathartic rush when Thile began singing. They even got unexpected feeling from “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” wringing real, unironic (and un-spiteful) joy from Dylan’s sarcastic love song.
The music’s heavy emotional payload wasn’t always so sunny; the less said about their (truly terrifying) rendition of Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War,” the better. But Thile and Mehldau canceled that out with an unbearably sweet encore — the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Mehldau went downright Mozartian on the bridge, with lithe little embellishments straight from the concerto; Thile took delicacy to a new level in the coda, playing Brian Wilson’s soaring countermelody in a nearly silent upper register. For a moment, when they finished, you could hear a pin drop in the room; then the audience let loose with a wild catharsis of its own.
West is a freelance writer.