Two lauded musicians, Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile, will perform at the Falcon in Marlboro on Tuesday, December 29 at 7 p.m. Better get there early if you want a table.
The virtuoso mandolinist, songwriter and roots confusionist Thile (Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers, J .S. Bach and now Prairie Home Companion) teams for a duet with Mehldau, the expansive piano improvisor who is now into his third decade as one of the essential, must-hear voices of modern jazz. The word “virtuoso” has been bled of all distinction by liberal use and by corrupted standards, but here are two players for whom the word springs back to life. Its similarly fatigued cousin “genius” perks up its ears a bit, too.
The funny thing about virtuoso chops is that they are just kind of dumb on their own: gym bodies with nothing important to lift, all dressed up with nowhere to go. Kinesthetic talent without an equally developed aesthetic purpose vexes us with its vanity and irrelevance. It smacks of suspended adolescence and getting stuck on one of the lower rungs of Maslow’s ladder. People will still come to gawk at the acute motor Olympics of shredding, of course; but hearts are cold and civilization is diminished.
As I try to preplay this Thile/Mehldau concert in my mind and imagine how these two genuine virtuosi will negotiate the registers, the genres and the available musical grid space, I feel warm all over. First of all, I can’t. I know the music of both men rather well, and I can’t put it together in my head. That is encouraging. Second, music – the real, dangerous stuff – always seems to happen on Brad Mehldau’s watch. This most empathic, fertile and willing imagination has chops that are beyond formidable, and when his two-hand contrapuntal engine really gets revving, you will witness brain-hemispheric independence of the most staggering sort. Now that’s technique, but to what end? What is ultimately so stunning about Mehldau is his big, Beethovenian sense of what is musically possible, and his hunger to realize as much of it as he can, to go anywhere. Chops are his spaceship. He is one of jazz’s greatest spontaneous composers and heightened moment-makers. Hot licks and smooth moves mean nothing to him. That is also encouraging.
While Thile is beloved by speed addicts, there is plenty of evidence of aesthetic discipline and genuine intention in his work as well. The Punch Brothers stringently apply their conservatory-grade skills to very specific compositional goals and effects. Half their audience secretly wishes that they would just cut loose and wail, but they don’t often oblige. Thile’s solo mandolin readings of Bach’s partitas and sonatas, too, are no chops showcase: They are performances of such lucid, understated lyricism and deference to the harmonic genius of the composer that they almost make you think you could step up and do it yourself. You can’t and never will. (Sorry if that sounds negative.)
I can’t wait.
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau, Tuesday, December 29, 7 p.m., Falcon, 1348 Route 9W, Marlboro; www.liveatthefalcon.com.