Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau may have each migrated to Nonesuch, but a duo collaboration wasn’t necessarily foreordained. All the right ingredients were present, however: simpatico outlooks on playing and writing, heaps of mutual respect and a longstanding desire to work together. That they are leading figures of their respective generations, capable of creating enormous buzz as a team, certainly didn’t hurt.
Yet nothing about this encounter is market-driven or contrived. Thankfully, it is not a recitation of greatest hits, but rather an occasion for the unveiling of beautiful new works by both players. Nor is it a chops session, although the atmosphere of restraint makes the chops all the more breathtaking. Most of the tracks are duets, two of which feature acoustic guitar. The members of Mehldau’s current trio—bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard—join for two of the seven Metheny pieces.
Having partnered with Lyle Mays for nearly 30 years, Metheny is no stranger to the demands of working with a pianist. More pared down than anything by the Pat Metheny Group, however, Metheny Mehldau is closer in spirit to the guitarist’s duo outings with Jim Hall and Charlie Haden. Mehldau’s “Unrequited,” an older piece, makes for a straightforward opener; Metheny states the legato melody first, moving to slinky low-register counterpoint when Mehldau takes the lead. Metheny’s “Ahmid-6” picks up the pace with a bright 4/4 tempo and difficult changes, including a truly odd device at the end of the form—the kind of compositional quirk we hear later on the Metheny-penned waltz “Bachelors III.”
Of the two remaining Mehldau charts, “Legend” is replete with shifting meters and subtle dynamics, culminating in an involved, dissonant unison statement that recalls the work of John Abercrombie with Richie Beirach. “Annie’s Bittersweet Cake,” surely one of the pianist’s most inspired themes to date, makes its point with taut left-hand bass lines and some fiery solo exchanges on the closing vamp. “Find Me in Your Dreams,” a dark ballad by Metheny, introduces a romantic, semiclassical mood, the kind Mehldau takes to like water. But the duo achieves maximum purity and intimacy with the acoustic guitar pieces, “Summer Day” and “Make Peace.” Despite a momentary clash of notes about two minutes into the former, Metheny and Mehldau are in perfect concord, supporting and evading one another with the intuition of orchestra conductors.
The quartet tracks, both by Metheny, are enough to make one hope for a full-band sequel to this album. Ballard introduces “Ring of Life” with a furious uptempo beat; Mehldau and Grenadier enter with a radically dense chordal matrix, belying the accessible guitar melody that follows. After a brutal solo by Mehldau, there’s a surprise: Metheny charges in on guitar synth. The second quartet piece, “Say the Brother’s Name,” was last heard on I Can See Your House From Here, Metheny’s 1994 collaboration with John Scofield, and Mehldau pours his heart into the tune.