Meeting of minds at a musical crossroads

Boston Globe, April 13, 2007

The guitarist Pat Metheny has long been an ambassador for a big-tent jazz sensibility in which technical virtuosity is put in the service of texture and melody. The combination of raw force and lyricism places his work at a crossroads where instrumental rock meets improvisational creative music, which accounts for Metheny’s popularity among jam-band aficionados and a brand-name draw that can fill huge venues where jazz is not a staple. But Metheny, a musical omnivore, is also steeped in jazz history and conversant across traditional and avant-garde forms, with the discography to back it up.

His wild mane and trademark casual demeanor notwithstanding, Metheny is now 52 and gradually turning the corner into elder-statesman status. In the pianist Brad Mehldau, 36, he has found a new acolyte who, though possessing an entirely different sound, shares his emphasis on lyricism and wide-open musical appetites atop an orthodox foundation.

A pair of albums, “Metheny/Mehldau,” released last year, and “Metheny Mehldau Quartet,” out this month, document the two men’s compatibility and are two of the more interesting recent jazz releases. On a North American tour behind these discs, Metheny and Mehldau visit the Boston Opera House tomorrow.

The albums stem from a single six-day session but present two different moods. The first, mainly duets, has a more introspective, chamber feel, while the second, which mainly features quartet items with Larry Grenadier on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums, is fuller, fleshier, louder, with more of the multilayered soaring effects for which Metheny is known, treading the line between thrilling and bombastic.

Metheny called in from a recent tour stop in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to share thoughts on the collaboration. (Mehldau, whose manager just passed away, wasn’t available.) He says the ability to release two records speaks to the sense of simpatico the two men felt on their first-ever time working together.

“We were very excited to play together, and we walked in with 24 pieces of music we wanted to play,” he says. “But we weren’t necessarily thinking we’d come out with 24 pieces worth putting on record. We ended up with an abundance of material.”

Metheny says it was Nonesuch label exec Bob Hurwitz, with whom he has worked since the Pat Metheny Group’s early days on the iconic German ECM label, who suggested making two records, “one mostly but not only duets, and the other mostly but not only the quartet. For me and Brad this was one big thing, and that was Bob’s solution.”

At the core of the collaboration is the challenge of making improvisational music – much of it duets, at that – for guitar and piano; as Metheny explains, it’s not one of the more common combinations.

“There’s almost a mythology about it that it’s very difficult,” he says. “There aren’t many examples of it, as duets. But I don’t necessarily think of it as guitar and piano anyway. I mean, sure, I’m a guitar player and he’s a piano player. But it’s more because they are both polyphonic instruments.

“You have to either agree 100 percent in advance what types of chords you are going to play, so as not to clash, and that’s kind of impossible. Or, you go in with the most finely tuned listening opportunities you can offer the other player, you follow each other to the microsecond. And when you sense that kind of listening quality, that’s when sometimes you say things that you didn’t know you knew.”

Metheny says he felt that vibe from the moment he and Mehldau started their session, even though, he says, “we had never played a single note together.” It confirmed the instinct he’d had about Mehldau ever since the pianist’s work was brought to his attention by saxman Joshua Redman, with whom Mehldau worked in the 1990s.

“When I first heard Josh’s [1994] record `MoodSwing,’ I could tell just from [Mehldau’s] comping on the head that this has gotta be the guy. When I heard him solo, I was driving and I just had to pull over and absorb it. He’s everything I hoped to hear in a young musician. He has a certain quality of melodic development. All of my favorite players – whether it’s Gary Burton, or Miles Davis, or Cecil Taylor – create a storytelling feeling and structure; there’s a sense of development that stretches over extended paragraphs. They embody that sense of taking ideas to extended conclusions.”

Some songs on the two albums display the gaudy expansiveness made possible in part by Metheny’s range of guitars, including a Pikasso 42-stringer and a synth guitar that delivers a hornlike sound. But much of the duet work has an intimate feel one might think would be a challenge to convey in a large concert hall. Metheny says that with close to 40 years of gigs under his belt, he’s comfortable with just about any material and venue.

“The truth is, I’m mostly playing for myself. I don’t mean that in a negative way; it’s just that the only thing you know for sure is how you sound to yourself. If I make the kinds of connections that I want to make, generally it will involve a response connection with the audience. The cliche that’s really true here is that the things that are the most personal become the most universal.”