If you squint hard and look from the proper angle, there are only a few degrees of musical separation between Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau.
They both excel in full-band scenarios as well as solo. They’re both virtuosic instrumentalists who venture into unfamiliar contexts. They both cover Bach and Radiohead.
And both have shown a penchant for unexpected collaborations. Mandolin wunderkind Thile is teaming up with Mehldau, a musician as comfortable playing jazz standards on solo piano as he is leading his trio through a long deconstruction of Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” for a nine-show tour of duo performances that visits the Berklee Performance Center tonight.
“The inevitability of his rhythm is something that is just a sound to behold,” Thile says of his newfound musical partner, in a telephone interview from his home in New York. “You feel rhythmically bulletproof with someone who has a pocket that deep.”
Unsurprisingly, they’re full of compliments for each other’s work. But this tour sprang from the true musical kinship they experienced in their sole previous show together, at London’s Wigmore Hall in 2011. (Thile calls it “one of my favorite musical performances, ever.”)
They also joined for three off-the-cuff songs earlier that year at the Greenwich Village club (Le) Poisson Rouge. A video available on YouTube shows the two burrowing deeply into the folds of Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” each switching swiftly between rhythm parts and lead lines, improvising freely within the song’s structure before snapping back into precise execution.
“It’s fun to be able to have a comrade in stretching,” Thile says, recalling that their brief rehearsal of that song did not seem to anticipate such an excursion. “Usually you need a little bit more of a plan than that to get music to come out of a collaboration. Brad’s just so quick on his feet. And I think our languages are compatible, so you can make suggestions on the fly that will be very rapidly understood and responded to.”
Mehldau points to Thile’s ability to explore without being obscure.
“He does a lot of very subtle, abstract things, rhythmically, harmonically, and melodically,” Mehldau writes in an e-mail, “but it’s all very clear and rock solid, so you always hear the intent of the musical idea. That is very helpful for the duo context.”
Thile, 32, a onetime prodigy who released his first album at age 13, in recent years has written a mandolin concerto, recorded Bach pieces, snagged a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, and played on Yo-Yo Ma’s Grammy-winning cross-genre album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions.” His band the Punch Brothers released its latest well-received album of free-range progressive bluegrass in 2012.
Last year Mehldau, who is Thile’s senior by 10 years, issued twin trio albums, one with all original songs and the other covering artists ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Clifford Brown. He’s pursued previous duo work with pianist Kevin Hays, drummer Mark Guiliana, and saxophonist Joshua Redman.
Mehldau says he’s not drawn to these collaborations as part of any didactic agenda, but simply as a music fan who wonders if there’s common ground to be found with an artist he enjoys. Similarly, Thile says he has no interest in being “a spokesperson for the mandolin,” playing unexpected styles of music for the sake of finding new territory.
Yet they’ve each displayed a thirsty creativity, pursuing ambitious compositional achievements while also refining their acumen for improvisation.
“I’m sort of amazed at the structural rigor of his improvisation,” Thile says of the pianist. “It doesn’t lose any spontaneity or explosivity — the hallmarks of improvisation — but I always feel like improvisation should be more like composition and composition should be more like improvisation. Then they tend to be natural. I feel like Brad is a guy that blurs the lines, just gloriously.”
So what makes a duo work?
“There’s no hiding, and an immediate, constant intimacy — it can’t be otherwise,” Mehldau reflects. “Once you’re comfortable with the other person, the possibilities are endless.”
Since there’s not exactly a standard repertoire for mandolin/piano duets, Thile and Mehldau assembled their book from favorite covers and selections each made from the other’s catalog. The project is so new, Thile says he expects the two will write some material just before the tour to fill any perceived holes in the set.
Mehldau has showed the stronger taste for re-interpreting rock and pop songs into his own idiom. (He played a Nirvana song at Tanglewood in a solo concert at Ozawa Hall two years ago.) There’s no formula to picking candidates for reinvention, he explains. In fact, trial and error plays a big part.
“It doesn’t always work,” he reveals. “I’ve tried to find things to do with Led Zeppelin tunes, for example, for years, and still haven’t had any success in terms of wanting to take something prime time. I’m a big music fan and listener like so many others, and I guess the only difference is that I then try to do something with the music I love.”