Ever since pianist Brad Mehldau made it onto the scene over a decade ago, guitarist Pat Metheny has wanted to perform and record with him. So now they’re at it in an extensive way — with two joint albums out already in only the last six months, and a national tour in which Metheny has in effect joined Mehldau’s working trio. Their dual fanbase easily sold out Disney Hall on Saturday night, and their music worked best when they dug in and grooved hard with each other.
Both Metheny and Mehldau operate somewhat outside the jazz mainstream in their different ways — Mehldau in probing, inward nods toward Central Europe; Metheny in sunny evocations of Brazil and the American Midwest — although both can play good, straight-ahead bop when they feel like it. Both have adventurous streaks, mixing up their pitches to stimulate their fans and confuse the critics, and both have made overtures into so-called classical music. Conveniently, both record for the same label, Nonesuch.
The question is who would have to do the most stretching to make this combination work?
At first glance, Metheny seemed to have the upper hand in the quartet numbers, for the breezy, feather-light Metheny sound thoroughly captured the Mehldau trio on tunes like “A Night Away” and Milton Nascimento’s “Vera Cruz.”
When Metheny and Mehldau were exchanging licks as a duo, the big moment of ignition occurred when Metheny struck up a furious, hyper-rhythmic strumming groove in “Annie’s Bittersweet Cake,” clearly driving Mehldau’s ostinato-based solo work. Metheny also contributed all of the timbral experiments — a molten guitar synthesizer solo on the dynamic “Ring of Life” and the glistening, heavily reverbed use of his 42-string “pikassoguitar” on “The Sound of Water.”
Yet Mehldau, staying on acoustic grand piano, was a far more provocative foil for Metheny than his usual keyboard partner Lyle Mays, poking around in a sometimes percussive, sometimes contrapuntal, often contemplative manner, staying away from stale chord voicings, even quoting a Jimi Hendrix tune in the middle of “Ring of Life.”
The relatively straight-ahead “New Blues” found them meeting head-on as an evenly matched team, flashing their bop licks with brilliant mobile drumming by Jeff Ballard and a sensational fast-walking bass solo from Larry Grenadier.
No truly new ground was broken by Metheny/Mehldau in concert or on their new “Quartet” disc; they had already done their innovating separately. But they found plenty of musically pleasing ways to make their disparate personalities fit together compatibly for two hours.