Edgar Meyer is widely considered the finest American classical bassist, and he is also well-regarded as a composer, having written a variety of sonatas, concertos, and chamber works for himself and other performers. The guy is a major virtuoso, but he’s also known for indulging an adoration of bluegrass and folk forms—particularly on recent crossover albums with the likes of Bela Fleck (banjo), Mark O’Connor (violin), Yo-Yo Ma (cello), and Sam Bush (mandolin). On these “crossover” records, Mr. Meyer’s chops are not necessarily tested, but his singing tone and impeccable time are essential.
Edgar Meyer is itself an eclectic crossover effort, on which Mr. Meyer plays every instrument through overdubbing. And while his bass playing is still prominent—playing many of the melodies in these lovely and lyrical songs, and occasionally tearing off astonishing patterns that few if any bassists in any style or tradition could imagine playing—the collection is dominated by the composer’s delicate piano work and his mostly gentle arrangements of folk instruments: mandolin, banjo, guitar, dobro, and gamba. While not a master of these other instruments, this perfectly assembled recording demonstrates that Edgar Meyer has what it takes to be his own accompanist.
In this style.
And the rub with this kind of record, we now know, is how pleasantly simple it can be. The best-selling example of this kind of folk/classical crossover, the once-ubiquitous Appalachian Waltz (featuring Mr. Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Mark O’Connor), was too lovely by a factor of seven—all melody and space and lilting folk simplicity. High-end background music of a sort (“Great for brunch!” someone said to me of AW), these records had a quality of slumming about them. The great classical bassist—a MacArthur Genius Fellow, no less!—is Just Plain Folks, too! If you are a genuine fan of bluegrass or Appalachian music, you can feel that these records, fine as they are, have a tendency to condescend to the very music they claim to love. And, really, why listen to Edgar Meyer’s interpretation of bluegrass when Bill Monroe records are plentiful?
Which is probably unfair to the current record, but it is a specter that certainly haunts all this deeply pleasant but slightly too pleasant chamber folk.
Edgar Meyer is a more interesting and more inclusive exercise than Appalachian Waltz and its progeny. While there are plenty of warmly melodic and lilting folk melodies like the piano/bass duet that opens the album (“First Things First”), there are other, gnarlier tunes as well. On the swift and shifting “Roundabout”, the piano dashes through a repeating figure, allowing the bass to pluck and pop as much as it skitter-bows like mad, though it is relieved by a smoothed out passage of beauty. “Please Don’t Feed the Bear” allows Mr. Meyer’s bass to bow at astonishing speeds and with rhythmic fervor—showing how the bass’s role in US folk styles can be much more than the I-V plunk of country music or the four-to-the-floor walk of jazz. He plays the giant fiddle like a guitar, and it’s pretty darn funky. The duet “In Hindsight” (for piano and bass) allows the big violin to soar like its tinier cousin, and Meyer’s tone is invincible: rich and agile at the same time.
In other words, Edgar Meyer contains a wealth of different moods and styles and plenty of supreme bass-playing. But there is a danger with this kind of pleasing instrumental music, even when the musicianship can be catch-your-breath awesome: it all goes down really easily. You put this baby on the music player of your choice and the mind can drift. Take “Woody Creek”, a rhythmically interesting bluegrassy folk song that is carried by gamba and mandolin and strummy guitar. It’s cool music, but you’ve heard its ilk often before on the soundtracks to documentary films, say, or in the quicksilver instrumental tracks between vocals on a Nickel Creek album. It is not uninteresting or mediocre music, but it is music so pleasant and “American” and apple pie that it pastes itself to the wall like an advertisement for Virginia tourism or a public service announcement for Reading To Your Kids.
Similarly, “Degree of Separation” is a very interesting piano/bass duet that catches Mr. Meyer playing some intriguing jazz piano—the kind of deliberate and measured improvising that jazz records could probably use more of. But the sonic palette is limited enough that you could miss the wonder of it all.
So, here it is—this is a very wonderful record (better than the Appalachian [This-and-That] records, I think) that is maybe too nice and pastoral and gentle to really grab your ear the way it should. Like a nice guy in high school who has trouble getting a date, this is a disc you should spend some time with. Yeah, it wears a cardigan and doesn’t come on strong-and-fun, but it’s got some moves when you get up close.
No tattoos, but you just might want to marry Edgar Meyer.
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