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Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile: Not Our First Goat Rodeo
by George Graham
(Blue Note Records as broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/22/2020)
It used to be that musicians playing in specific styles tended not to collaborate much. There seemed to be steep walls between, for example, classical music and rock and bluegrass. There were occasional efforts at fusing disparate styles, but they tended to come off as one-off novelties, and not lasting associations. These days, the musical world is much more stylistically diverse, with musicians from what would seem like very different worlds regularly jumping genres – sometimes as an economic necessity – and also collaborating, blending their styles in interesting ways.
This week we have a new album by an excellent example of musicians from rather different worlds creating distinctive original music, basically providing a sequel to a previous collaboration which won a Grammy Award. It’s the quartet of classical cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma, Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan, folk, bluegrass and jazz bassist Edgar Meyer, and mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, winner of a MacArthur so-called “genius” award and host of the Public Radio show “Live from Here.” Their new project is called Not Our First Goat Rodeo, a sequel to their 2011 album Goat Rodeo Sessions, which has become something of a classic.
The new album features the same personnel, and the same guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan and another helping of their acoustic music that defies ready categorization. It’s somewhere between contemporary classical music, with its occasionally angular sound, and bluegrass, and old timey music where a violin becomes a fiddle. All four of the musicians are about at the very top of their fields on their instruments, and have no qualms about tossing off bits of virtuosity that sounds perfectly casual. The moods can run from ruminating, almost dirge-like to jolly in sound. It’s a largely instrumental project except for the three tracks in which the angelic-voiced Aoife O’Donovan of the band Crooked Still appears. And one of those vocal pieces is wordless. The writing is multi-layered and musically complex. There is not a lot there you can come away humming, but the sonic textures in the context of the traditional instruments, are quite creative. According to the composers credits, all the musicians contributed to each of the 10 pieces, including Ms. O’Donovan, on the tracks where she appears.
With their instrumental music being somewhat abstract at times, as they did on the last album, they came up with rather whimsical titles. The new album opens with a piece called Your Coffee Is a Disaster. The piece rather epitomizes the approach taken by the quartet: a bit quirky but deftly combining Yo-Yo Ma’s classical cello with a kind of slightly anarchic bluegrass sound. <<>>
With more folk and bluegrass influence is the melodic line of the following piece Waltz Whitman. It intersperses that motif with an almost dirge-like line played on the cello. <<>>
The first of the vocals is called The Trappings featuring Ms. O’Donovan, with Thile and Duncan providing the harmonies. Regular listeners to Thile on the “Live from Here” show are likely to recognize Thile’s writing style on the piece, though it’s credited to all five players. <<>>
Ms. O’Donovan also appears on Every Note a Pearl which has no lyrics but has the quality of contemporary classical music at times, and at others can resemble a kind of mutant hoedown. <<>>
For me one of the most interesting pieces is called Not For Lack of Trying. It highlights Ma’s cello, playing a kind of melancholy, yearning legato line, given a more classical texture with Edgar Meyer at the piano, with Thile’s fluttering mandolin providing an interesting contrast. <<>>
All four of the players, including Thile, go with bowed string instruments on a track called Voila! a kind of jolly-sounding piece that evokes what you would expect would happen when highly advanced musicians do a hoedown. <<>>
Another highlight is Scarcely Cricket on which Stuart Duncan plays banjo, but stylistically it’s rather far from conventional bluegrass. All the players sound as if they are having a great time. <<>>
The other vocal is We Were Animals, which again features Aoife O’Donovan with Thile and Duncan providing the harmonies. It’s a real delight combining the interesting writing with Ms. O’Donovan’s always mellifluous vocals. <<>>
Not Our First Goat Rodeo, the new sequel the Grammy-winning 2011 album Goat Rodeo Project, by Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile is another acoustic- delight, with four towering musicians having fun exploring the intersections among their genres. It’s acoustic music that runs from somewhat abstruse, to jolly, to plaintive to just beautiful. Aoife O’Donovan’s occasional vocals add much to the mix, but not to the point of eclipsing the extraordinary instrumental music going on. It’s an excellent example of how in the hands of great players, a seemingly simple combination of traditional acoustic instruments can result is multi-layered music that rewards you each time you listen.
Our grade for sound quality is an unqualified “A,” with the recording made classical audiophile style with the full dynamic range preserved, and the textures of the instruments warmly captured.
Musical genre mixing can be fraught with the danger of it becoming either a kind of novelty or just a bad idea depending on the execution. But Ma, Duncan, Meyer and Thile again raise it to a very high level, while keeping it organic, and clearly having fun in the process.
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