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The New Cool: Beyond Jazz and Bluegrass

Michael Wilson
No genre, no problem for Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile.

Brad Mehldau plays piano and Chris Thile plays mandolin and sings a bit. Their new album is self-titled and is a blend of jazz and free-flowing bluegrass, but it shouldn't be defined by either genre. Brad and Chris are simply making great music.

So, what is jazz anyway?

In a recent studio session with the Manchester-based piano/bass/drums trio GoGo Penguin, we were reminded that the word "jazz" has as many definitions as it has fans.  

If you stay away from labels of any sort, you're more likely to attract open-minded listeners. "They're great musicians? Wonderful. I love music!"  is a much more universal idea than a singular passion for rock, or rap, or country, or even jazz.

The world of jazz has always been a welcome place for music that evades simple categorization. There's freedom not just for musicians, but also for their audience. Just leave those preconceptions behind.

Mehldau and Thile obviously owe a lot to the traditions of jazz and bluegrass music.

Brad studied jazz at The New School with icons of the style like Junior Mance and Fred Hersch. Many of his albums are explorations of jazz standards, though he's worked with modern electronic and rock styles as well.

Chris grew up taking mandolin lessons as a kid in California, forming the band Nickle Creek with his dad and family friends Sean and Sara Watkins when they were still pre-teens. By the turn of the century, they were incorporating folk and rock influences in their music. Stretching his talents further, Chris played every instrument on his solo release Deceiver. Soon after, he formed the Punch Brothers, who blended rock and classical styles into a traditional bluegrass lineup.

The two players found themselves both recording for the Nonesuch label and their mutual admiration brought them together to try out a duo tour in 2013.  Two years later they created their self-titled duets album which was released this past winter.

Nate Chinen in the New York Times may have described their collaboration best, writing that the two "come from different worlds but the same species, and whatever feels unlikely about their pairing is eclipsed by what feels perfectly natural.... Both love Bach and the Beatles, and both have developed fan bases bigger and broader (and younger) than their genre silos can accomodate."

As modern jazz continues to break the rules set by genre creation, the open minds of "jazz" fans are ready for whatever comes next.

You'll hear the thrilling, bluesy, twangy recording of "Tallahassee Junction" from Brad and Chris on The New Cool this week. Escape the "genre silo" and enjoy their beautiful music.

You can catch a solo performance from Brad Mehldau at Benaroya Hall on October 25th for the Earshot Jazz Festival, and hear Chris Thile hosting A Prairie Home Companion each week. Connect with The New Cool for bonus content and giveaways all week on Facebook!

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m. hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.