[16 October 2007]
The music of bassist-composer Edgar Meyer turns me into a romantic. Maybe that’s because the sound of the double bass makes it hard to forget that the instrument is made of wood. That might sound silly, but compare its sound to that of a violin. A violin sounds like the human voice, but more intense. It’s like a human-voice consommé, boiled down to its most emotional (or most shrill, depending) essence. The bowed double bass, on the other hand, sounds expansive instead of concentrated. It has a humid resonance not far removed from that of a hollow log. The notes summoned from its belly have the dignity that suggests it was once the bass of a majestic tree, and it sings as if recalling conversations with other, similarly noble fauna. The violin’s strings are so tight on its fragile body that it’s a wonder it doesn’t snap in two, but the double bass wears its meaty strings as comfortably as its towering branches might have suspended kudzu vines.
That’s the romance talking. I love the Southern Appalachians Meyer’s music calls to mind, but I know their woods are actually oozing with mosquitoes, snakes, and decomposing muck. So it would be wrong to say his music transports you there. Rather, he cleans it up for you, capturing their vibrancy and tranquility—the paradoxical combination that makes them magical—but without making you worry about getting mud on your shoes.
Meyer, who counts a MacArthur “Genius” Award among his many honors, has a jaw-dropping musical range, spanning classical, country, pop, and Americana. Only a narrow subset of his work is displayed on The Best of Edgar Meyer, primarily small-ensemble pieces that best show off his talents as a soloist. As displayed in the opening track, taken from his Appalachia Waltz collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Mark O’Connor, there’s something at first improbable about his playing, not unlike watching an elephant dance ballet; Meyers makes the fat instrument surprisingly nimble. Even when playing on the low end of the instrument’s range, his melodies are clear and energetic. Meyer’s arrangement of these fiddle tunes, “The Green Groves of Erin/The Flowers of Red Hill”, is especially clever, initially giving the long accompanying notes the bass might be expected to play to the higher-pitched instruments while keeping the melody for himself.
One of the things that makes Meyer’s compositions successful is his pairing of the bass with high pitched instruments. There are two duets for bass and violin (Joshua Bell); a duet for bass and mandolin (Mike Marshall); and four pieces for bass, mandolin (Marshall), and banjo (Béla Fleck). (It also includes two multi-instrumental pieces in which Meyer plays all these instruments, as well as guitar, dobro, and piano.) The spread in register between the bass and higher instruments give each more room to display their strengths.
Meyer’s structure and harmonies impressively interweave classical and Americana impulses. Rather than shoe-horning folkish elements into classical harmonies and forms, he builds on points of intersection. It is no surprise that his tonal pallet is reminiscent of Aaron Copland at his most accessible. Meyer’s approach to organizing long stretches of musical time draw equally on classical and folk music traditions. In his duet with Béla Fleck, for example, Meyer makes sonata form feel almost like an organic outgrowth of the fiddle tune. American fiddle tunes have a fairly basic structure, built on two related but varying melodies. Tune A is played twice, then Tune B is played twice. That’s it—repeat ad infinitum. The classical sonata is also built on two contrasting tunes. After playing Tune A and Tune B twice, though, the sonata typically goes on a lengthy detour, elaborating on these tunes much in the way a jazz or rock musician riffs on a song melody during a solo. Meyer structures this part of the piece much like a bluegrass band might organize its solos. Fleck plays a lengthy solo ending in a flashy cadenza, then switches to a backup role for Meyer’s bass solo. They come together at the end to repeat the first melodies one last time. Though close listening reveals that each solo strays far from its starting point, there is a consistent rhythmic feel and repeating melodic fragments that make it sound like we are always close to home.
While the movement of Meyer’s Concerto in D for Double Bass and Orchestra is enjoyable, the two more conservative classical works, an adaptation of Johanne Sebastian Bach’s C-minor Cello Sonata and Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen lose me. Their lyrical lines are undeniably beautiful, but they lack the rhythmic energy that animates the rest of the album. These works also demand much more attentive listening than the bulk of the album, which allows itself to be enjoyed passively—it’s great background music. This is a strength and a weakness, of course. Meyer wonderfully evokes a mood and a setting, but his music does not necessarily encourage active listening, at least on record. (Live performance is undoubtedly a totally different experience.) These are the hazard of a “Best of” CD from a performer as multifaceted as Edgar Meyer—it is designed to show off his full range, not to create an optimal listening experience.
But most of this CD is excellent listening from a creative talent, a great introduction to his eclectic career.