Strictly speaking, mandolinist Chris Thile is a bluegrass musician and pianist Brad Mehldau is a jazz musician. But genre categories disappeared when the two met at Berklee Performance Center Sunday night for a sold-out World Music/CRASHarts concert, the fifth show in a nine-city tour.
In fact, genre distinction is something that both musicians have worked hard to erase from their work. Mehldau’s day job is with his acclaimed jazz trio, but he likes to cover Radiohead and Nick Drake and work in a variety of contexts and collaborations. Similarly, Thile’s current outfit is the progressive-bluegrass band Punch Brothers (previously he was with Nickel Creek), but he’s also recorded and toured with Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo Sessions band, and his next album is scheduled to be a collection of Bach violin pieces transcribed for mandolin.
You could argue that the show at Berklee leaned more bluegrass, folk, and pop than jazz, simply given the majority of the source material — Gillian Welch (“Scarlet Town”), Fiona Apple (“On the Bound”), Radiohead (“Knives Out”), Bob Dylan (“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”), Punch Brothers (“Me and Us”). But if Thile and Mehldau had a point to make, nothing did that more clearly than the two-song medley of the traditional “St. Ann’s Reel” and Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity.” The duo’s complex improvisations made both tunes emphatically part of the same conversation.
Here and on other instrumental numbers, the two proved admirable partners. They took turns soloing or comping for each other, Mehldau often providing grounding left-hand rhythms, Thile laying down percussive riffs with dampered, toneless chording. But the high points came when they took off in contrapuntal flights, then fell into cadences of dramatic closure.
The instrumental derring-do was leavened by the keen and twang of Thile’s high, clear tenor voice. He was as effective with the noir-ish jazz standard “I Cover the Waterfront” as he was with Welch’s murder ballad “Scarlet Town.” More evidence that these two really are living this particular fusion.
There’s also something to be said for the duo’s stage rapport. Thile did most of the talking, and at times Mehldau was a serene straight man. (Thile: “Brad, how come you never have to tune? . . . I guess it’s all on me . . . [Silence from Mehldau.] . . . I'm glad we had this little chat.”)
Nonesuch, the record label for both artists, says that at this point there are no plans for the two to record together. But given the success of their Berklee show, it’s hard to imagine those plans are far off.