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Music Review

Mehldau, Redman stretch limits, limitations of a duo

Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman at Berklee on Saturday night.

Josh Reynolds for the Boston Globe

Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman at Berklee on Saturday night.

This is why you do not leave before the house lights come up.

After saxophonist Joshua Redman and pianist Brad Mehldau finished their (planned) encore, as many as a quarter of the people at Saturday night’s sold-out show at Berklee Performance Center began leaving, presumably to beat the crowd out of the auditorium and beat the cars out of the parking garage. But when you pay as much as $37 for a ticket, why risk missing the best part?

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Those who left early did just that. Mehldau and Redman did a second encore, and that performance — a clever reworking of Nirvana’s “Lithium” — was the highlight of a nearly two-hour set that never wavered. The tension of the grunge-rock-turned-jazz tune built and built, Mehldau digging deep left-hand grooves, until Redman finally unleashed himself and spun furious circles of notes from his tenor sax. “Perfect!” someone in the crowd shouted when it was over.

So was the whole show. Playing without the rhythmic anchor of bass and drums can be risky (it risks being boring, among other things), but the simpatico and sheer skill of these two musicians demanded sharp attention from start to finish.

These two hours comprised only nine tunes, yet it was no stretch for them to turn simple themes into improvisations that ran upward of 12 minutes apiece. Mehldau possesses a readily identifiable sound that employs heavy left-hand vamping, and it meshed well with Redman’s warm, occasionally agitated tone on both tenor and soprano.

They took turns taking the lead — Mehldau started his tune “The Falcon Will Fly Again” alone, and Redman did the same on his “Note to Self” — and never stepped on each other’s toes. On Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” they played partly in unison, but then Mehldau dropped out and comped behind Redman’s solo before they engaged in a bit of call and response. All the while, the rhythm was more implied than stated. On each and every song, they hit the landing perfectly, without so much as a glance in each other’s direction.

Indeed, as the guy up front indicated, everything was perfect — the wordless coordination of efforts, the endless improvisational innovation on just two instruments, and the sheer excitement created by what, in lesser hands, could have been a ho-hum chamber recital. Yes, it was nirvana.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGreenlee.
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