The Graham Weekly Album Review #1168

CD graphic Joshua Bell & Edgar Meyer: Short Trip Home
by George Graham

(Sony Classical 60864 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/22/99)

During the 1970s, following the folk music boom of the previous decade, a number of younger musicians with rock backgrounds were attracted to country and bluegrass. The Byrds made a couple of country-influenced albums. Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record. Perhaps the most famous example of a rocker going bluegrass was Jerry Garcia who, as a side project, played some banjo in a bluegrass band called Old and In the Way. While most of the rockers-turned-pickers played more traditional-style bluegrass, gradually, these younger players, who were listening to all kinds of other styles, began dabbling with combining the instrumentation of bluegrass with some of those untraditional genres. David Grisman, who played with Garcia in Old and In the Way, was one of the pioneers of what would come to be called New Acoustic music in the late 1970s, mixing bluegrass and jazz.

Since then, a further generation of players have established themselves bringing breathtaking virtuosity to bluegrass instrumentation, but with musical influences that run far and wide. Among the bright lights are Béla Fleck, Tony Rice, Mark O'Connor, Jerry Douglas, and the members of New Grass Revival. Most have been creating original instrumental material of great sophistication. Fleck, especially, is a gifted and creative composer. With their style bringing togther bluegrass and jazz, not surprisingly, a few players from more conventional jazz have collaborated with some of these New Acousticians.

So it is not unexpected that with the level of musicianship that the New Acoustic scene has cultivated, alliances with classical musicians should come about, especially given the commonality of that instrument called the "violin" in the concert hall and the "fiddle" when played by a bluegrass musician.

This week we have such a collaboration, between the young classical violinist Joshua Bell and bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, called Short Trip Home. They are joined by two of the most respected names on the New Acoustic scene, Sam Bush, founder of New Grass Revival, and Mike Marshall, who played in David Grisman's pioneering group.

Edgar Meyer is the key to this project. He is a musician who has worked both sides of the classical/bluegrass fence. Studying classical bass, he has played with orchestras and as a soloist, and is bassist with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. But he also regularly plays with bluegrass bands has been on quite a few albums with musicians on the New Acoustic scene, including being part of the memorable but short-lived all-star ensemble Strength in Numbers, with Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor.

Meyer has also established a reputation as a composer of difficult to categorize music, and over the last few years, has made a two interesting collaborations, Appalachia Waltz with classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fiddler Mark O'Connor; and Uncommon Ritual a joint recording with Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall.

This new project is his most engaging yet. Violinist Joshua Bell comes from a conventional classical background and is probably best known for his work recording Gershwin with John Williams and the Boston Pops, and playing in the soundtrack for the film "The Red Violin." He brings the classical traditions and technique on the instrument, though as a young player he can be expected to be a bit more open-minded to experimentation. Marshall and Bush both come very much from the bluegrass side, though they are known for their eclecticism and musical sophistication. Meyer knew the other three well and had played with them individually, but this was the first time they had really worked together on a project. Even Bush and Marshall though ubiquitous on recordings, had not worked together in a group, since both are mainly mandolin players. But on Short Trip Home, Marshall primarily plays guitar, though both Bush and Marshall pick up their fiddles and join Bell on one piece.

Unlike the New Acoustic music scene, where improvisation is done in a similar manner to jazz, with the instrumentalist improvising over the chord changes, the music on Short Trip Home was more tightly composed by Meyer. And though it sometimes has a jazzy or bluegrass feel, there are some carefully crafted orchestrations going on, and the pieces themselves are quite interesting and well-written, with creative and difficult shifts in rhythms and unexpected harmonic turns. Meyer's arrangements do provide some opportunities for improvisation, though Bell, as a classical player, does not often take them. The result is a wonderfully happy medium, with the pure tone and technical brilliance of Bell, and the rhythmic syncopation and improvisational prowess of Bush and Marshall, while Meyer easily moves back and forth between the two, sometimes bowing his bass in sad melodies, and at others holding down an infectious beat, playing like a jazz bassist.

While most of the CD features the quartet, there is a lengthy work in four and a half movements called Concert Duo, which is performed by Meyer and Bell alone.

The CD gets under way with its title track, Short Trip Home a pretty composition that sounds as if it could have come from an old American folk song or hymn. The piece shows the compatibility of the four musicians of different backgrounds. <<>>

With a much more angular sound is the following piece Hang Hang co-written by Meyer and Marshall. <<>> The composition provides a nice opportunity for a solo by Bell with his very pure classical tone and technique, that somehow fits well into the piece. <<>>

A good example of Meyer's excellent writing is something called BT, in which both Marshall and Bush play mandolins, with Marshall on a mandocello. The seemingly playful piece at times resembles bluegrass, but the tune takes all kinds of unexpected melodic and harmonic twists. <<>>

There's also a piece called BP, which is bluegrass in an odd rhythm that seems to skip a beat every so often. Bell attacks the piece with gusto, sounding more like a fiddler than a concert violinist. <<>>

One of the highlights of this album is a piece called If I Knew which combines a very pretty melodic line with a section that evokes Celtic music. <<>>

The group Strength in Numbers, in which both Bush and Meyer played, did a couple of great tunes that had a reggae beat. Meyer brings back that sound on the piece called OK, All Right, which combines a sense of fun with some really interesting compositional elements beneath the surface. <<>>

The group re-arranges itself into a kind of hoe-down string quartet with three violins and Meyer's bass, in a joint composition by the four called Death by Triple Fiddle. The track contains Bell's only real writer's credit on the CD, with his having created the first violin solo. There's some great playing by all, and it's not exactly a Mozart string quartet. <<>>

Sounding most like a classical work is the Concert Duo in four movements and a so-called Prequel, performed by Bell and Meyer only. The work has frequent brilliant moments, though it does not seem to be structured as coherently as some of the others, and the violin/bass duo does have its limitations, despite some excellent playing by Bell. The movements range from the beautifully melodic <<>> to the more abstruse, though still with remarkable musicianship. <<>>

Short Trip Home by classical violinist Josha Bell and eclectic bassist/composer Edgar Meyer is a very successful effort to combine bluegrass and New Acoustic music with classical influence. All four musicians on the CD are amazing players, and each adds a particular strength. Meyer's compositions are not to be underestimated. Not only do the pieces allow each musician to put in some memorable playing, they are really creative from a musical standpoint and can be listened to in a number of ways -- as a fun bluegrass/classical union, but also for the very interesting melodic, harmonic and even rhythmic content.

Sonically, this album is first rate. The recording approach is nice compromise between the distantly miked "concert hall sound" of conventional classical recordings and the tight, intimate sound of bluegrass and New Acoustic albums. The sound is clean, bright and detailed, but still with a nice sonic ambience. And because this CD went through the the record company's classical division, it was allowed to have the full dynamic range of the performance, rather than being processed for maximum loudness through audio compression, as is standard operating procedure among pop labels.

Meyer and Bell are both signed to Sony's classical division, and the CD will presumably be marketed as a classical release. But this is anything but a conventional classical album, and traditionalists -- those who believe that nothing written after the 19th century could have any value -- are likely to shun such a collaboration. Likewise, with the word "classical" on the label, traditional bluegrass fans are not likely come across this CD, or if they do, to run away from it. This is definitely a wonderful musical experience for the open-minded, but with the compartmentalized way music is categorized, something as brilliantly eclectic as this recording may have trouble being noticed on anything other than Public Radio. But for those who enjoy the New Acoustic style and revel in musical exploration and brilliant musicianship, Short Trip Home is not to be missed.

(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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