They don’t look like they should be on the same stage together. Chris Thile, a mandolin player of almost supernatural gifts, now firmly ensconced in “A Prairie Home Companion,” boyish and tousled, in jeans and a striped sweater; Brad Mehldau, an equally talented jazz pianist, his cropped hair grey, dressed in black jeans, jacket t-shirt and boots. As they start playing, you could believe they’re from different worlds—Thile all smiles and ease, rocking on the balls of his feet, unfazed by a problem with his in-ear monitors (his eyes light up when, a few songs later, he tries them again, and they work); Mehldau serious and composed. What they share an endless curiosity and collaborative nature; they travel in wide orbits.
While Friday night’s performance at The Theatre at Ace Hotel kicked off this year’s CAP UCLA season, its spiritual home was a few miles northwest at Largo. Both Mehldau and Thile are veterans of both Largos—the original club on Fairfax Avenue and the sit-down Largo at the Coronet on La Cienega, where the kind of expansive cross-genre music they play is not just accepted but encouraged.
“That Old Shade Tree,” which opened their show and their Nonesuch album, touches on jazz, folk, soul, and rock, but arrives at something that sounds like nothing but itself. Thile starts out strumming damped strings, his angelic falsetto dropping into his tenor with the speed and force of a felled tree, Mehldau’s piano laying down down an inquisitive line which turns full-throated and assured, a flower opening up at the first sign of sun. As a statement of intent and introduction, it’s damn near perfect.
That level in invention and surprise was sustained throughout the 90-minute performance. It’s music made with a light touch but serious ambition. They even manage a Largo trifecta with a wonderfully refracted version of Fiona Apple’s “Fast As You Can.” “I Cover The Waterfront” was brooding and noirish, their playing as enveloping and cool as a slow-moving fog. Joni Mitchell’s “Marcie” retains the song’s lovely rock-skipping melody, but strips away the original recording’s mannered production. Thile’s tender vocal emphasizes the song’s melancholy: the letter undelivered, her unexplained exit, the rumors take on darker, more complex shadings. And his “Noise Machine” is a stunner. A lullaby to an colicky child, the singer tired but loving, both amazed and frightened, the refrain “your mother is a hero,” comforting them both. But he just seems too nice a guy to pull off “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” one of Dylan’s nastiest kiss-offs. He knows it, too, and makes a joke of the final “you just wasted my precious time.” Musically, it’s another story, as their arrangement touches on Irving Berlin, bluegrass, Monk, and Tatum. It’s a joyous expression of freedom, the the instruments taking down the road with a light step and full of optimism.