It wasn’t all that many years ago that guitarist Pat Metheny was the new rising star on the jazz scene. In the past 30 years, he has released or appeared on at least that many records, including collaborations with artists as diverse as John Scofield and Ornette Coleman.
Now there’s another new force among jazz instrumentalists, pianist Brad Mehldau. Fulfilling the hopes of many, he and Metheny have joined forces on the simply titled Metheny Mehldau. Although at times reminiscent of the collaboration between Bill Evans and Jim Hall on 1963’s Undercurrent, the meeting of Metheny and Mehldau stands on its own.
On Undercurrent, Hall and Evans played a significant number of standards. Here, in contrast, all the tunes are compositions by Metheny or Mehldau. Only two of the songs, both by Metheny, have been recorded before and only one of those, “Say the Brother’s Name,” was recorded by Metheny, appearing on his collaboration with Scofield.
When you combine the distinctiveness of each artist’s songwriting. Metheny’s signature style and the fact he wrote seven of the ten songs, some might consider Metheny to be more out front. This is reinforced when the duo are joined on two songs (“Ring of Life” and “Say the Brother’s Name”) by bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, the members of Mehldau’s current trio. Those cuts, particularly “Ring of Life” with the appearance of Metheny’s almost trademark guitar synthesizer sound, are remarkably like something that could appear on a Pat Metheny Group release. That feeling is bolstered by the fact both songs were written by Metheny and Grenadier toured in 2000 as part of the Pat Metheny Trio.
Yet this is truly a collaboration. Regardless of who wrote a particular song, Metheny and Mehldau do not simply trade leads while the other “comps.” In fact, if there is any tendency in the songwriting, it is to give the other person the opening. Particularly on the songs in which it is just Metheny and Mehldau, there is a comfortable and tight interplay between the two. While they have no hesitancy mirroring or echoing the other, each artist tends more to strike out on his own in exploring the melodies and phrases of a particular piece. This tends to create a polyrhythmic experience that ultimately blends together to make up a delightful whole.
If there is a down side to the release, it is that there tends to be a sameness to several of the duo pieces. Those pieces also seem to be almost too reserved at times. On the last song, “Make Peace,” though, Mehldau and Metheny open things up in the last third of the song before slowly taking it all back down again. Given its dynamics, the song truly leaves you wanting more. And while the overall mellow and warm tones make the CD a delightful listening experience, part of you wants them to let loose a bit more often.
This aspect of the recording may lead some to wish there were more performances by the quartet. Others, however, may easily prefer the duo presentations. Regardless, fans of either artist can’t go wrong with this and it may even be a good opportunity to get a flavor for each.