Chris Thile once titled an album “Not All Who Wander Are Lost” after a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien. It could easily describe his life as a musician. Thile was known as a mandolin prodigy before he was a teen and became a star as part of the group Nickel Creek. He followed that act by forming The Punch Brothers and embarks on regular musical pairings with all manner of ace players, including Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan in the “Goat Rodeo” project.
In conversation, Thile is always enthusiastic about music and where it’s taking him. The limited number of concerts he’s performing with jazz lion Brad Mehldau is a good example.
He says it was fellow Punch Brother Gabe Witcher who introduced him to Mehldau’s music.
“I was basically only listening to Miles and Coltrane and Chick Corea, things like that,” says Thile. “I didn’t know who the young guns were.”
When he listened to one of Mehldau’s live albums, he was blown away.
“Jazz doesn’t really begin to describe him,” says Thile. “I got ‘Art of the Trio, Vol. 4’ and my jaw hit the floor. From that point on, I just sort of idolized him. I had a new standard for improvisation.”
The two had separate solo sets at a benefit for President Obama’s presidential campaign.
“He went first,” says Thile. “I had to follow him and I’ve never been more nervous.”
Mehldau needed to go home, but was so intrigued by what he heard of Thile’s first two songs that he stayed for the entire set. Mehldau and Thile talked afterward and became friends and musical co-admirers.
In September 2011, Mehldau invited Thile to perform with him at Mehldau’s residency at Wigmore Hall in London. The two chose a selection of numbers that they could improvise freely with.
“I couldn’t believe that the guy was so light on his feet,” says Thile. “From his mind to his fingers, there seemed to be no blockage. It seems like anything he thinks he can play. ... I think people teach transparency in your technique on your instrument. The fact that he’s playing disappears. The music that’s coming out is so amazing.”
The environment often has an effect on how musicians play and Thile says performing at the Bijou, which is one of his favorite venues to perform in, should be conducive to a great show. But all of the shows are bound to be special.
“I can’t even tell you how exciting it’s gonna be to step on stage. The one show at Wigmore is one of the highlights of my life. What I love about playing with him is if one guy makes a musical suggestion, the other guy is gonna pounce on it. That’s gotta be the most exciting thing: ‘What are these guys going to do?’ Knoxville, in particular, ‘What’s that edition of the show going to be like?’”
He says the two will draw from writers they both love. There will be a Radiohead song, probably a tune by Elliott Smith and a tune by Bob Dylan. Thile will probably sing a little, but most of the set will be instrumental. Each might bring a few originals as well.
“We’ll probably have a set list, but he’s one of those guys who is equally good at listening and leading. I think we’re going to just let the night dictate what is going on.”
As always, Thile has a number of other projects in the works, including adapting Bach’s “Six Partitas and Sonatas for Solo Violin” into a mandolin boxed set.
“Every project affects every other project. The things I learned playing with Yo-Yo, Edgar and Stuart in the Goat Rodeo things positively affected the Punch Brothers. When I’m playing the solo Bach, that’s just so good for the mind and soul. If I did just one thing I’d risk wearing the groove too deep to get out. I always worry about that when I do any one project for too long. I dig myself a little trench and I make a lot of progress in that trench, but I can’t see what else is going on in the world.”
Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 16
Where: Bijou Theatre
Tickets: $33, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 965-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!