As one-third of bluegrass innovators Nickel Creek, Chris Thile treats the mandolin as ferociously (and with as much respect) as any axe-shredding virtuoso. Mike Marshall, another mandolin master, has performed and recorded with Dave Grisman, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, among many more. What makes their second collaboration, Live Duets (the tracks are taken from a string of dates supporting their debut album, 2003’s Into the Cauldron), so outstanding is exactly what you’d think: two shockingly adept musicians playing on the same stage. It’s like Paco deLucia’s collaboration with Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin in their groundbreaking 1993 album, Friday Night in San Francisco, slowed down a bit and moved from Spain to somewhere in Tennessee.
But where a similar pairing might veer toward self-congratulatory solos and contests of one-upmanship, Marshall and Thile know they’re at the top already. And instead of showing off, they remain intently focused on melody and supporting the tasteful flights of their partner. The stunning intricacy — Thile in the right speaker, Marshall in the right — of tracks such as “Byron’s,” “Hualalai” and “Carpathian Mt. Breakdown,” with its burning slow-blues middle section, showcase two improvising geniuses confident enough to work, feed and bounce off each other — a musical relationship yielding magnificent results.
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