Pat Metheny & Brad Mehldau: Metheny Mehldau (Nonesuch)
A pianist and a guitarist, both known for beautiful ballad playing, get together for an album of mostly duos (Mehldau's rhythm section of bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard join on two tracks of the ten here). Snooze city, right? That's what I thought after the first track. Boy was I wrong. This thing is intense! Not that the opening number, written by Mehldau (everything's original; he wrote three, Metheny seven) is sleepytime; I'd just made the mistake of trying to listen to it in the background while I did something else. When Metheny's "Ahmid-6" followed, it grabbed me, and my other work was put aside.
The levels of inspiration, imagination, and collaboration here are so high that it's impossible not to be captivated, and a shame to not be listening carefully every second because every passing moment contains a new and thrilling felicity of some sort. For instance, on Mehldau's "Annie's Bittersweet Cake," the two players get into a deep groove that's reminiscent of one of those soulful vamps Keith Jarrett known for. But as a duo, it's even more amazing to hear guitar and piano both simultaneously comping and intertwining dual leads.
Of course, there have been lots of "players' albums," collaborations where two instrumental whizzes get together, sparks fly, and the cognoscenti ooh and ahh over the display of chops. This goes beyond that. For one thing, the album is intelligently sequenced so that things don't blur together. Metheny mostly plays electric with his trademark smooth yet pointed tone, but changes things up with acoustic on his "Summer Day," guitar synth on his "Ring of Life," and baritone acoustic on his closing "Make Piece." The quartet tracks are pillars at tracks 4 and 7. Ballads, mid-tempos, and uptempos offer variety of both rhythm and density.
Of greater importance, the chops are not the raison d'etre of this disc. They're assumed. What's thrilling is not how fast their fingers move, but how quickly the players' minds interact. There's always a sense of balance and proportion at work here; if these guys had wanted a more evocative title, this disc could have been aptly named The Golden Mean.