Watch Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau Perform 'The Old Shade Tree' Live
Among the qualities that make Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile a not-quite-unlikely pairing — virtuosity, curiosity, a natural drive to bridge divisions of style — the one that may run deepest is a sense of resonant, articulate melancholy.
Thile, the singer-songwriter and mandolin wizard who now hosts , comes to this bittersweet air from the bluegrass tradition, where the high lonesome sound is firm bedrock. Even within the shiny parameters of Nickel Creek, he could convey a welter of heartache beneath his ebullience. The same holds in Punch Brothers, which has made hair-trigger group cohesion not only an art, but also a spectator sport.
For Mehldau, the jazz pianist and composer, a current of sweet sorrow flows through many different areas of musical interest: Billie Holiday caressing a desolate ballad, Radiohead turning introspection aglow. Mehldau has even explored this yearning in formal terms, variously evoking "sehnsucht" (a German word; see Schubert) or "saudade" (Portuguese; look to Jobim).
On Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, due out Friday, the two artists find common ground at a range of coordinates, including a songbook standard, a Celtic ballad and a song by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch.
But their emotional languages most fluently converge in the realm of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, a mutual touchstone. And it's not just that Thile and Mehldau cover one of Smith's most familiar songs, "Independence Day," inscribing its minor chord progression with graceful filigree.
There's also a deep Smithian sensibility in "The Old Shade Tree," the album's opening track, and the lone original that bears a shared songwriting credit. Set at a purposeful medium tempo, the song begins with an almost regal harmonic character and gradually accrues tension, if not torment. Thile sings at first in a high, vulnerable register, edging into his falsetto, but when he delivers the most cathartic line — it involves an ax, though that word goes unsaid — he brings a hardness into his tone.
This performance took place at the Bowery Ballroom near the end of 2015, just before Thile and Mehldau went into a studio to make the album. The closeups of Thile's face capture his uncorked intensity as he sings.
I guess none of you thought of its roots
As the living dead trapped underground
Or of the blizzard to come and the hero I'd be
Planting bonfires all around town
A shade tree is usually a symbol of stability and succor. Here it's a manifestation of angst and torment, something to be subversively thwarted. The sadness in that act is girded with steel.
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldaucomes out January 27 on Nonesuch.
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