Many artists have a recognition factor specific enough that when their name appears on a concert bill or recording, you know in an instant the type of music that is at hand. AC/DC? Jay-Z? George Strait? You know what you’re in for with those guys. Someone like Edgar Meyer is another story entirely.
Last month, the Grammy-winning bassist was in Kentucky for a performance with the Louisville Orchestra. His repertoire: Giovanni Bottesini’s Concerto for Bass No. 2 and Meyer’s own Double Bass Concerto No. 1.
But Monday, when Meyer was in Lexington as a guest of “The WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour,” only one collaborator was at his side: mandolin ace Chris Thile. Like Meyer, Thile grew up on bluegrass but ventured into new acoustic terrain after the dissolution of Nickel Creek, the band he essentially grew up in. Classically inclined works were held in check in favor of jointly composed works and improvisations for bass and mandolin.
Concertos and improvs. Orchestras and duos. Classical and bluegrass. What are the links, and where do they fit in for a player like Meyer, who might play with a symphony one week, a chamber music society the next and a bluegrass buddy after that?
For his music with Thile, Meyer insists that the answer begins in a place where audiences, as well as the artists, can give the music their full, active attention.
“I think the thing you have to remember is that the music we’re doing doesn’t really fit in anywhere anyway,” Meyers said. “There’s not a natural place for it unless everywhere is a natural place. And even that isn’t true. Its natural place is probably in places where we can play in more of a concert format. It’s not music for clubs. It’s not that great for festivals. It’s concert music.
“But it’s concert music that is way in the cracks. At best, one hopes it appeals to people who enjoy chamber music and to people who enjoy jazz and bluegrass. What you have to do, and this is easier said than done, is instead of compromising standards on all fronts, is to at least get to the gate on all fronts.
“That means it’s our job to have the playing be that refined and have the compositions be that interesting and not just have everything sound like chamber music because it’s soft and sweet. And if people like improvised music, then the improvising ideas need to be good. I can’t promise you we deliver on all fronts. But that’s the ambition.”
The music on a new album of duets by Meyer and Thile, titled simply “Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile,” bears an intimacy and melodic delicacy that approximates chamber music, as in the attractive, patient stride of “I Wasn’t Talking to You.” Here, Meyer’s bowed playing on double bass counters Thile’s gentler flourishes on mandolin. Of course, the tune soon erupts into a playfulness that falls far outside chamber boundaries.
Later, the record offers a brief (as in 27-second) duet abstraction titled “This Is Not the Pig.” That eases into a brittle barn-yard bounce that suggests bluegrass without fully surrendering to it. Its title? “This Is the Pig.”
At its best, however, “Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile” adheres to an acoustic music lexicon that uses bluegrass as a starting point for jazz-directed adventures. String players Bela Fleck, Darol Anger, Jerry Douglas and Meyer were at the forefront of such stylistic advancement more than 25 years ago. Thile is easily among the boldest of the new-generation string-band players to further those ideas.
“I know that working with Chris, there is going to be a feeling of unlimited possibilities,” Meyer said. “It makes me feel that I can work on the very essence of how I write and play, not some kind specialized sub-niche. It’s a chance for me to get to the heart of the music.”
Meyer admitted to being “proud” of the duets album, but he seldom showers much praise on his own playing. Of the album, he says, “It was the best we could do at the point we were at.” Of the duo’s recent tour of the Northwest, Meyer relies on an admission that he has often used to describe his performance work: “I always wish that I had played better.”
But in listening to “Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile,” the only thing shadowing the duo’s world-class musicianship is the highly intuitive communication that exists in the music itself. Together, both traits provide the album’s 12 compositions with heart, humor, precision and warmth.
“A lot of the communication is instantaneous,” Meyer said. “And if it’s not, you work on it. Like a marriage. The essence needs to be there. There needs to be something special that explains why you would do this and not something else.
“But at the same time, I suppose everything you do requires some degree of investment.”