‘Ohmigod’ night at the Wheeler

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
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ASPEN When guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau entered a New York recording studio in December 2005, the two current jazz greats were barely acquainted. Yet after listening to one another’s music, and having momentary backstage encounters for years, the two figured they could find common musical ground on which to collaborate, even if their respective instruments were not always suitable duo partners. Sure enough, the two clicked; they emerged from the studio with material for two albums – “Metheny Mehldau,” released last fall, and “Quartet,” out this week – containing nearly every tune they had recorded.As Metheny and Mehldau took the stage at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday night – with drummer Jeff Ballard and bassist Larry Grenadier, members of Mehldau’s trio who also were in on the recordings – there seemed no doubt that the chemistry in the studio would transfer to the stage. In only the second night of the tour, the quartet displayed a comfort and confidence – and of course, otherworldly musical skills – that hinted it would be an “Ohmigod” night at the Wheeler. It was; by the end of a two-hour-plus set, the group was assaulted with a standing ovation that went miles beyond merely polite.

The concert began with all four musicians onstage, and with a somewhat more aggressive approach than displayed on the CDs (especially “Metheny Mehldau,” which focuses on piano-and-guitar duets). The two principals showed starkly different approaches to jazz: Metheny is calculated, smooth and errs on the side of more notes than necessary. Mehldau is hardly a minimalist, but, with his back turned to the audience and happily conceding center stage to the guitar, given to subtleties. Close listening to his piano revealed uncanny phrasing, fantastically imaginative accompaniment and wells of emotion. Still, no surprise, it was Metheny, on guitar synthesizer, who wowed the crowd with a solo that bathed the Wheeler in a palpable texture. Thus, Metheny’s embrace of seeming gimmicks was vindicated in a thrilling and artistic moment. Later, Metheny would pull out at multi-necked contraption, part guitar, part harp. That, too, was put to tasteful, visionary use.

When the rhythm section departed, I feared a drop in energy level. But in the duo section, the soloists showed another side to their partnership. In a triangle between piano, guitar and composition, Metheny and Mehldau connected on a telepathic level, with implied rhythms allowing the two to weave complex melodic and harmonic ideas.For those who question whether Jazz Aspen Snowmass has abandoned its namesake genre, the answer is no; Jazz Aspen was a co-presenter, with the Wheeler itself, of the show. For those who doubt whether jazz has anything urgent to convey to a contemporary audience, the thunderous reception given Metheny Mehldau was confirmation that it does.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is