Post-Show Review: Chris Thile, Solo

Photo by Michael McCauslin (Wikimedia Commons)
Lately I've been into taking notes during shows. Not exactly reviewer-on-assignment type notes, but more like ideas that pop into my head over the course of a performance: things that I notice that I'd like to steal, things that I notice I really don't like and wouldn't want in my own playing, and other general miscellanea. My best thoughts reveal themselves to me at performances that are particularly novel or creative, which was the case tonight. 

Chris Thile, mandolinist and MacArthur genius, played a two-hour show (no intermission) at Sanders Theater on campus, which was where I saw Wynton play a couple weeks back and where I've taken intro computer science and classical Chinese philosophy, among other things. I had heard Chris play with Brad Mehldau in April at the Berklee Performance Center (they played "I Cover the Waterfront" as an encore, which was tremendous and made that a must-know tune for me, which I still haven't learned, incidentally), and was originally introduced to his music by a good friend of mine with a background in bluegrass fiddle. The show, which Chris helpfully explained to us after a couple tunes, was structured as a kind of musical club sandwich, which is to, a Bach sandwich with movements of the G Minor Sonata as the beginning, closing, and medial sections of the program and various tunes and originals as the "stuff" or the filling in between. 

There are a couple risks with having an eclectic program: having the music come across as gimmicky, transitioning between styles and genres in a convincing way, losing the interest of the audience. None of these applied to the show tonight; considering the challenges of maintaining an audience's attention as a solo performer—for two entire hours!—I think having the sandwich-style program was a brilliant solution to that challenge. Thile, who's been an advocate of full-blown musical eclecticism, probably could have played a solo concert of entirely Bach and still have been mesmerizing, but I'm glad he chose to fill the program with such a variety of sounds. Over the course of the night, I saw him stomp on the ground as self-accompaniment, play an introduction that used the mandolin as a drum (avoiding pitched chords), pick the neck itself, and entertain the audience in-between tunes with anecdotes and improvised banter. But, at no time was the music made to be less important than Thile's on-stage entertaining; the vibe of the show could be described as "serio-silly," if that makes sense. Like tragicomic, but serious and silly on and off and even sometimes at the same time.

I wrote about solo saxophone playing a little while back, but seeing this concert has convinced me that I've got to just dive in and try it. My takeaway from the concert—aside from the brilliant mandolin playing and singing—was that resourcefulness is particularly important in programming a solo show. The way Thile orchestrated each non-Bach song, changing his accompaniment and leading the audience through a series of sonic landscapes, was very apparent to me; I kept thinking, "How is he making this show work so well?" but the answer was obvious: great music and thoughtful programming. 

One last thought: audience engagement is a recurring issue for a lot of my friends who are musicians, and jazz has its own problems at times because of its awkward double-status as both "art music" and as being, historically, dance music as well as music that encourages audiences to react vocally and to participate in the creative process that isn't such a thing in classical music. Thile was charming, humorous, and altogether entertaining when he wasn't playing, and the audience really picked up on it. There was an overwhelmingly positive vibe in the room; after Thile finished a lengthy Partita in the middle of the program, someone called out, "Play it again!" to which Thile replied by jokingly playing the opening of the piece. It didn't make the music any worse, but it did make the show a lot more exciting for me as an audience member, which might be something I'll try to pick up on for future shows.

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Speaking of audience engagement, a lengthy Twitter discussion of laziness in the preparation of jazz musicians caught my attention today. It all got started here:
Darcy James Argue, Ryan Keberle, Miles Okazaki, Dan Tepfer, and numerous others throw in their two cents, but the conversation also swings to the topic of to what extent audience members should be let in on the musical process that they're going to hear performed. RE: various cop-outs and prefatory excuses that musicians offer to cover up for laziness, Miles contributed my favorite one: