Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile thinks of his career as one big audition, a quest to join the ranks of the upper echelon of musicians and composers—a group he calls the "musical fraternity." He speaks about this journey as if it's just beginning, as if his impressive accolades—most recently, he was honored as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012—and pure skill are no match for those of his heroes. But take even a passing glance at Thile's resume, and it's clear the 32-year-old is already a card-carrying member of that elite group; over his two-plus decades of writing and performing, he's collaborated with a who's who among bluegrass, jazz, rock, and classical music, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and banjo all-star Béla Fleck.
It would be easy for Thile, who currently leads the acclaimed progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers, to rest on his laurels. But he doesn't seem to know the meaning of a day off. In 2012 alone, Punch Brothers released their third album and an EP; Thile also collaborated with Ma, Meyer, and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Duncan for The Goat Rodeo Sessions: Live EP. His first project of 2013 is a collaborative tour with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, a player Thile reveres with palpable wonder.
"Brad was the artist who showed me a new way of thinking of music, instead of thinking of music as a musical omnivore," Thile says. "Brad was one of those guys where I said, ‘Holy shit. This isn't jazz—this is something else. It's something better.'"
Thile discovered Mehldau's progressive style of jazz after college. His first band, Nickel Creek, was starting to take flight, and Thile set out to consume and study as many styles of music as possible, expanding his dexterity toward playing and composition. He'd pick out albums from various genres—jazz, classical, rock, bluegrass—and analyze the nuances, noting where the genre boundaries blurred.
"I started comparing and contrasting things, and I wanted to figure it out," Thile says. "I'll die trying to do that. But Brad is someone who does that. And all of a sudden, when he's backstage at a show of mine, I just about freaked out."
In 2011, Mehldau was curating an experimental jazz series at London's Wigmore Hall; he asked Thile to join him for a brief stage performance, which marked the beginning of an important new relationship for both. There was an instant musical connection between the two—a mutually eclectic taste and an appreciation for subverting the confines of their respective genres. Onstage and in the studio, they're both known for re-imagining simple pop songs and classical pieces—they're just as likely to cover Bach as they are Michael Jackson. Ever since that first show, they've taken that approach on sporadic mini-tours. Armed with piano, mandolin, and Thile's expressive tenor, they're as unpredictable as they are imaginative, venturing into extended improvisation and call-and-response solos.
Thile likes the simplicity of this two-man approach. In particular, it offers a welcome contrast to Punch Brothers, a five-man ensemble overflowing with ideas.
"The more people you get, the more of a plan you have to have," Thile says. "It just takes longer for information to sort of ripple through a larger group of musicians. When it's just one guy, you can obviously do whatever the hell you want. When it's two guys, you can suggest something pretty subtly, and the other guy can pick it up, and all of a sudden, you're playing something you had no intention of. And that's part of the joy of it."
The connection between these two musicians is free-spirited to the point of absurdity. Just days before kicking off their 2013 tour, they were scrambling to assemble a vague outline of their set list.
"He sent me some new tunes to check out, and I'm about to send him a new tune of mine," Thile says. "We're going to have a couple days of rehearsal before the first show, but it's also definitely going to tweak different stuff every night. There's going to be a lot of improvising, so I'd like for people to feel like they're a part of what happens because it changes with every night."
That unpredictable spirit is what keeps the collaboration alive. In Thile's mind, it's one more step toward entering that "musical fraternity."
"There are ideas bouncing between different people, and each time, something gets added, so it changes," Thile says. "And it's so much fun. That's kind of the beauty of music, and I hope people will be able to see the beauty of that happening when Brad and I play."