Thursday, April 12, 2007

Metheny Mehldau

On paper, the Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau collaboration ranks as one of the most exciting of the last few years, given that it's not just an album (two actually), but a tour as well. Of course, to paraphrase a terrible sports cliche, they don't make albums on paper. The tour hits Boston this Saturday, at the Opera House, and I can't be there. So, my thoughts on the (apparently amazingly well-selling) album...

I picked up the second of their two records, Quartet, this weekend. (I've had "Metheny/Mehldau", from here referred to as "M/M".) Nate Chinen gushes about it in last Friday's NY Times, and talks to Brad and Pat a little too. Some thoughts on the two albums (I hesitate to say review):

First, full disclosure. While I am an unabashed and somewhat knowledgeable Metheny fan, especially of the non-PMG material, I know Mehldau's music less well, mostly from the radio and one, really unimpressive outdoor live trio gig in Boston. From what I've heard, I like the solo music much more than the trio music. (I'd go as far as to call Brad's trio- at least when Rossi played drums- the most overrated of our time. Not bad at all, but not the brilliant vanguard it's been hyped up to be. To me it sounds like a Keith trio homage with more odd meters.) It hasn't helped that both times I've seen his bassist Larry Grenadier independent of Brad, he's been a huge letdown- once with Josh Redman, and once literally flailing in a trio with Paul Bley and Lee Konitz. So there's my ax to grind.

On both M/M records, but especially the first (I could by release date- Metheny/Meldhau came out first, Quartet second), I had the opposite reaction of most of the critics I read- I like the duos a lot, the quartet stuff not so much. I think guitar/piano duos are very, very hard to pull off- Chinen covers this well in his piece. I've always thought that despite my unfailing love of the artists involved, the guitar/piano duo records I know well- the Jim Hall/Bill Evans Undercurrent album and more recently the Frisell/Fred Hersch Songs We Know effort- are spectacularly unsuccessful. There are just too many awkward moments, especially when the pianist is soloing and the guitarist comps in a way that just clutters things up.

Not so here. There seems to be a concerted effort, rather than working from a solo/comping paradigm, to create a tapestry of sound during the improvised sections of tunes. (And all of the music on both records are clearly tunes, head/solo/head kind of efforts.) The intensity and sympathy of the listening and interaction between the two is truly impressive. Listen to the solo section of the first tune on M/M, "Unrequited" for an easy example- through the whole solo section of the tune both and neither are the soloist, they effortlessly skip over and around each other.

While the duo efforts are almost univerally ballads or mid-tempo numbers, I don't find myself bored listening at all. I've heard this complaint before about Wayne and Herbie's "1+1" and the Metheny/Haden duo album. I think it's a misplaced criticism in all three cases. There is an intimacy on all these albums, an intense listening, that I think rewards the listener when s/he sits back and absorbs it, rather than waiting to be wowwed. "Find Me in Your Dreams", the warmest ballad on the "M/M" album, plays this way for me- patient, careful, and haunting if you let it haunt you.

As you can see, I've had the opposite reaction to many of the reviews I read- I like the duo stuff much better than the quartet. The quartet material, especially on M/M seems rather formulaic by comparison. "Ring of Life" is a Metheny post-boppy anthem propelled by a sort-of breakbeat groove from drummer Jeff Ballard. Rather than lift the track up, I feel like the rhythm section feels like a treadmill that Pat and Brad run lines on top of, and excercise instead of a romp. Much of the interaction that crackles through the duo stuff is notably absent here. "Say the Brother's Name", another bright, perky straight-eighth number, fares some better, propelled especially by an exceptional Mehldau piano solo. But behind the Metheny solo, the rhythm section, especailly Ballard, takes less chances, and the excitement dims. (Steve Greenlee in the Boston Globe recently said about "Quartet" that he thought that Ballard (ds) and Grenedier (bs) don't know what to do, a sentiment I share.)

One aside- I leave these albums truly blown away by Brad's playing. The way he shapes lines and accompanies himself is remarkable, and intensely individual. It's the first time after hearing him I walked away saying "he's the real thing". He does owe a TON to his teacher Fred Hersch, whose playing I still prefer for its rawer emotional quality. But I wish I could do on a regular basis half of what Brad is pulling off.

The better news is that I have very high hopes for the live music, and wish very much that I could see it myself. (Chinen hints at a live disc, which would be great) I have a distinct feeling that the comfort that comes with playing this material every night, and the excitement of an enthusiastic audience, will take this music to a far better place than the studio material did.

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