I have for a long time rated Brad Mehldau as one of the most talented pianists playing jazz today, an opinion formed from many listenings to the "Art of the Trio" series of records. Those discs, comprising a mix of live and studio sets, approach the standards repertoire in a loose, richly swinging way that is a source of great refreshment to those who may perhaps have tired of Keith Jarrett's sound.
This record follows on from the very well received release from last year and the two lead men clearly enjoy each other's musical company. Mehldau is as sensitve an accompanist as he is a leader, and Metheny remains a hugely talented guitarist with a very distinctive sound (although it must be noted that one or two of his synth effects appear not to have changed since his days playing in Michael Brecker's groups of the late '80s and early '90s).
The material on show here is all original, and mixes a broad range of styles very effectively: some is reminiscent of Joanna Macgregor's disc of spirituals with Andy Sheppard in the lilting piano grooves that underpin gently undulating solo lines, whereas others is more vigorously driven by Larry Grenadier on Bass and Jeff Ballard on Drums. Stylistically one might describe the music as lying midway between country and jazz, but that has long been Metheny's preferred hunting-ground, and it is very effective in this group context. In fact, Mehldau's straightforward piano, rather than banks of synthesizers, means Metheny's sometime more synth-led sound enjoys more freedom than if it were enveloped in great clouds of sound. One or two tracks do cut loose a little more (En La Tierra Que No Olvida is a good example), but the music stays well within distinct stylistic bounds.
There can be no criticism of the musicality of all the players on this album, which really is first-rate in every case, but I must admit that, while everything that they do play is brilliantly conceived and executed, I was a little disappointed by what they did not play. At no stage do we really hear Mehldau fire up his engines as he does on his trio discs, nor does the group ever really take great risks with the repertoire. Despite the title, the abiding impression this disc makes is that Mehldau is accompanying Metheny: there is none of the beautifully balanced interplay such as is to be found, for example, on Bill Evans and Jim Hall's "Undercurrent". (However, it should not be forgotten that Brad Mehldau has famously disavowed any influence from Evans!)
Despite these caveats I can thoroughly recommend this CD: the music on it is very good, and it does make for consistently enjoyable listening.