Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer: Big Top

The first time I heard Béla Fleck and the Flecktones the idea that if you take enough musicians who are ridiculously talented on their instruments and put them into one box, that whatever comes out will be astonishing.  The idea that ability supersedes genre is one that has oft been practiced and proven by Fleck and others that all operate in this land of Neo-Bluegrassish music.  Rather than shunning the different lineages of these instrument groups, we instead try to accept it all for what it is and generate a product that reflects the diversity in texture and sound, assuming that making music takes precedence over form and function.

Such is the case with Chris Thile (b.1981) and Edgar Meyer's (b.1960) new album, Bass & Mandolin.

"Mine's bigger."

It is comprised of ten original compositions by the duo for bass and mandolin (with a few for piano or guitar as well).  It is a whirlwind of technical prowess coupled with risk-taking tonality.  Sitting and listening to it for a few times now I can't help but feel like this is what it might sound like if Paul Hindemith wrote for Flatt and Scruggs.  There is an earthy, human tone to all of it, but each piece can drift seamlessly in and out of the bluegrass genre and drift atonally about without offending the ear. There's a unique combination of harsh dissonance and super-human technical prowess that merges with the characteristic folk and bluegrass harmony to establish a new breed of music that exists somewhere between Bach, Weber, Cage, and Grainger.  

Thile pulls on his appreciation for the Baroque habit of musical ornamentation frequently, creating these elaborate mandolin riffs that leaves one pondering the notion that the instrument itself might actually be restricting to the performer's ability to translate the whole of his ability.  While Meyer reinvents the double bass as a 6' tall fiddle.  There are moments where you just can't help but feel like we're all just showing off for company.

But the moment before it goes off and gets labeled a technical freak show, we are reminded that there is a sense of order to all of this and Bach and Hindemith regain control of the helm.  It's a proper balance of musicality and technicality.  

The piece I most identify with on this album is "Big Top".  It begins with a playful interchange and then a bass melody that moves through keys like a fat kid through cake.  It then works itself into a jazzy, circus-like groove that allows a mandolin solo that takes us back to a minimalist interlude peppered with chromatic runs that break knuckles.  

It's this creative back and forth between two instruments at the polar ends of the frequency spectrum that makes this album work.  It has the feeling of a technical contest without the sense of one-upsmanship.  Both men are competitors to the same end and working toward a common goal.

Thile hails from California and has contributed much to the world by way of the two groups, Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, both of which have worked to develop this unique brand of folk music. Meyer on the other hand was born on the Bluegrass-homeworld of Tennessee and grew up under the tutelage of his orchestra director father and thus has a firm foot in the classical and bluegrass worlds.  His virtuosic abilities on the bass are noteworthy if for no other reason than it's really freaking hard to play a bass in the manner Meyer has adopted.

Well, damn Paul, I've always thought I was just big-boned.
The thing about this music is that it fills a musical void for me.  As of late I've grown more and more frustrated with the crap that radio stations deem appropriate to blast in our ears daily.  In researching the duo I came across no shortage of news articles praising their current tour.  One in particular stuck out from journalist Joel Francis of the Kansas City Star.
If albums like this had singles and radio had interest in playing anything like this, the enchanting “El Cinco Real” would be on every DJ and programmer’s desk in the country. Instead it will have to settle for a life of NPR bumper music.
Someday I hope we as a society can rise up against the spoon-fed mediocrity of the radio and television, and maybe the internet can be a vehicle for such an act of treasonous subterfuge. In any event, I do sincerely hope you take the time to enjoy what Meyer and Thile are doing for our ears and maybe explore it a little further.

See you next Friday.


Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/back-to-rockville/article2258403.html#storylink=cpy