Guitarist Pat Metheny may not be old, but he's been around long enough to be considered an influential artist who can start giving something back to younger players. Pianist Brad Mehldau, still in his mid-thirties, has already established himself as one of his generation's most significant artists. Metheny has always been selective about his musical associations, but an encounter between these two musicians somehow seemed inevitable. Metheny Mehldau
is Metheny's first significant collaboration with a pianist other than his long-time musical partner, Lyle Mays, and the results will both sound familiar to fans of either artist and provide some surprises as well.
The set consists primarily of new Metheny compositionsonly the Latin-esque "Say the Brother's Name" and up-tempo "Ahmid-6" have been recorded before. Mehldau contributes the propulsive "Legend," melancholy "Unrequited" and abstractly lyrical "Annie's Bittersweet Cake."
With the exception of two quartet tracks featuring Mehldau's regular trio matesbassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballardthe rest of Metheny Mehldau consists of duets. While the composer's identity is always clear, the strength of the other player takes the material to new places which would otherwise go unexplored if they were played in the writer's regular musical contexts.
Mehldau's support for Metheny bears a harmonic ambiguity which sounds distinct from the way Mays might interpret the same tunes. The lyricism of the gentle "Legend" may sound like pure Metheny, but Mehldau's voicings pull it closer to his own universe. One of the biggest strengths of the record is how, despite Metheny's greater compositional input, it really is a collaborative effort. Each voice remains strong and distinct, but ultimately the two players create something that sounds like both of them and, strangely, also like neither.
Metheny sticks with a warm hollowbody tone for the most part, playing steel-string acoustic on "Summer Day," which could easily be an outtake from As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls (ECM, 1981), and baritone guitar for the even folksier closer, "Make Peace." Mehldau may not hail from the Midwest (as Metheny does), but you'd never know it.
As engaging as the duet tracks may be, the two quartet tracks provide the best glimpse into the real potential of this collaboration. Ballard's playing contrasts sharply with the equally intricate work of Metheny's current drummer, Antonio Sanchez. His fiery drumming drives both Mehldau and Methenywho brings out his trademark guitar synth on "Legend"to their most energetic solos of the set.
Word has it that this is the first of two recordingsthe second will focus more on the quartet. Metheny Mehldau works well as a record of duets, but the promise of more quartet music is exciting. Hopefully this is more than speculation, but until that's substantiated, Metheny Mehldau is a compelling meeting of two strong musical minds whose differences actually add up to greater strength.
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Personnel: Pat Metheny: acoustic and electric guitars, guitar synth; Brad Mehldau: piano; Larry Grenadier: double-bass (4,7); Jeff Ballard: drums (4,7).