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THILE - Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer, 'Genius' pairing (Chgo Trib, Oct. 16, 2014)

Chicago Tribune

Arts & Entertainment

Chris Thile / Edgar Meyer, publicity photo, Nonesuch Records

'Genius' pairing: 2 great musical minds think alike

By David Royko, Chicago Tribune


The Punch Brothers' Chris Thile on his relationship with mentor Edgar Meyer, going back to Nickel Creek days.

A pair of MacArthur geniuses join musical forces in Chicago.


Mandolinist and composer Chris Thile's Bach CD ("Sonatas and Partitas," Vol. 1, Nonesuch, 2013) is a genius trifecta. Thile received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2012. His producer, bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, was likewise awarded in 2002, and pianist and writer Jeremy Denk snagged his a month after the disc was released — and he penned the liner notes.

Anyone who wonders if the MacArthur folks know what they're doing need only be in Symphony Center Friday night when Thile and Meyer, who have just released "Bass & Mandolin" (Nonesuch), present evidence in one of the most demanding — and gratifying — of musical settings.

"The wonderful thing about a duet in comparison with a group [is] it's like the dinner you'll have with one person versus the kind of dinner you would have with four or five people," says Thile by phone from the road. "Musical interactions are exactly the same. It's that much more intimate."

Thile knows the difference firsthand. At 33, he already has 25 years of music-making on his vita. The trio Nickel Creek and the quartet Goat Rodeo (with Meyer, fiddler Stuart Duncan and cellist Yo-Yo Ma), both Grammy winners, and his current quintet, Punch Brothers, have taken him from success to success.

Along the way, Thile's all-star duet partners have included guitarist/vocalist Michael Daves, banjoist Bela Fleck, mandolinist Mike Marshall, pianist Brad Mehldau, guitarists David Grier and Bryan Sutton and violinist Mark O'Connor.

Similarly, Meyer's Grammy-infused career ranges from the legendary newgrass quintet Strength In Numbers to "bands" of classical luminaries gathered for Schubert's "Trout" Quintet.

And like Thile, Meyer has explored another daunting instrumental extreme. Each has recorded solo Bach that was not originally composed for their respective instruments.

If Thile's career seems to echo aspects of Meyer's, that is no accident.

"I feel like I informally apprenticed myself to Edgar when I was 19 years old," Thile says. "I dropped out of college because Nickel Creek was starting to happen and moved to Nashville (Tenn.)."

It was while Thile was crafting his early masterpiece, "Not All Who Wander Are Lost" (Sugar Hill; picked by the Tribune as Best Bluegrass Recording of 2001), that their musical relationship began.

"I got Edgar to be involved with that record, very involved," Thile says. "And I just started picking his brain. He is a guy who knows about existing in music on both a learned and an intuitive level simultaneously. There is no musician who embodies that spirit more than Edgar. I have, honestly, patterned myself after him for years. So this is a particularly special collaboration for me."

Their musical relationship has developed from junior and senior partners to more or less equals.

"Now if I don't agree with him, I will make it known," Thile says with a laugh about the bassist 21 years his senior. "We've always come to it ostensibly as equals, but I have more perspective these days than when we first started collaborating. Edgar gets a kick out of how I will take him on more these days.

"But at the same time, his musical worldview informs mine to such an extent that our collaboration is definitely not defined by conflict but by a great deal of mutual respect and sheer delight."

A key to their compatibility is a shared view that music need not be constricted by genres.

"Good music is very similar to other good music," Thile says. "Edgar is part of how I learned to approach music that way. If you are playing Bach, that doesn't mean you switch off the intuitive side of your musicianship, and if you are playing a traditional fiddle tune, that doesn't mean you turn off the learned side of your musicianship. Both benefit from the other mightily, and one of the joys about playing with Edgar for me is that he embodies that musical spirit."

One change in Thile's life since those early days in Nashville is strictly personal.

"I'm a husband now," says Thile of his marriage last year to actress Claire Coffee. "Someone that you want to share your life with — it's a beautiful thing," he says with another laugh. "And it is pretty incredible to get to live a little bit. A pretty exorbitant amount of my life has been dedicated to music over the last 10 years."

With Thile, however, it always seems to come back to his art. Maybe it's a genius thing.

"To get an opportunity to live in the world with this other person is really good for me," Thile says. "Not just as a person, but as an artist, and I'm excited to keep tabs on the effects that that's having and see how to meaningfully integrate all that into my artistic life."

8 p.m. Friday, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. $25-$80; 312-294-3000 or


Postscript: After the concert 

Matching Grills: My boy Jake and his fellow adult-braced Chris Thile showing off their hardware back stage at Symphony Center after Chris and Edgar Meyer astonished a packed house with their bass and mandolin hardware, October 17, 2014.

Not Edgar: My son Jake and Chris Thile after their Symphony Center Bass-and-Mandolin concert, no doubt making Edgar Meyer jealous that he doesn't have adult braces too, October 17, 2014.

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