Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau – The Bowery Ballroom – April 9, 2013
Chaos theory states that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia affects the weather here in New York City. Through some incomprehensible series of actions and reactions, the two completely unrelated phenomena essentially communicate with each other. I think a similar incomprehensible series of actions and reactions explains the communication going on between the seemingly unrelated musicians onstage last night at The Bowery Ballroom. In this scenario, the parts of the butterfly and the weather were jazz-pianist extraordinaire Brad Mehldau and mandolin aficionado Chris Thile.
From the beginning, high-level interplay was on display, a long introduction that felt like a free-form-improv instrumental provided the opportunity for both musicians to assume the role of the butterfly—multihued, delicate, light—and the weather—unpredictable, blustering, occasionally torrential. These long fugues were interrupted by lyrics and vocals on songs like “Chopped Down Your Shade Tree” from Thile, bringing the concept of song and composition to the music before disintegrating back into superlative two-man jamming and then back again. Pieces stretched to 10 minutes and beyond, the duo showing no signs of running out of things to talk about, themes to pursue and then deconstruct. One of the few fully instrumental songs pushed the limits of their talents, simultaneously layering an Irish reel with blues and free jazz, like Ornette O’Coleman from Memphis for mandolin and piano, shifting to a mandolin swing reminiscent of David Grisman and finally relenting to jazz-standard territory with Mehldau stretching the exercise to a full 20 minutes.
The highlights within an essentially highlight-reel show were the covers. Each began as if just an instrumental vamp on a familiar melody before fully exploring the material to its fullest. These included Gillian Welch’s “Scarlet Town” and an instrumental version of “Long Black Veil.” Anyone familiar with Mehldau or Thile wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the centerpiece of their show was an awe-inspiring, exploratory take on Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” which had both men in top form, weaving in and out of the song’s themes perfectly. The set closed with Fiona Apple’s “Fast as You Can,” featuring a vigorous back-and-forth between the two, the whole set coming to a head in deep musical conversation. Perhaps the best for last, the encore closed with a perfect version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the jamming concise and on point, the audience, for once, literally not having to think twice about the chaos going on in front of them. It’s alright. —A. Stein