Tuesday, October 16, 2001
News & Reviews
FLECK, MEYER RESET BAR FOR BANJO, BASS
By David Royko
After the standing ovation for Bela Fleck's and Edgar Meyer's performance of Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo" Sunday evening at College of DuPage's McAninch Arts Center, a woman in the front row called out to the stage, "That was really good!" With a smile, Fleck said, "It hurt me deeply." Though the audience laughed, one had to wonder if the banjoist was joking. So difficult was the musical feat that it actually stretched Fleck to--if not beyond--the limits of what is possible from the banjo's fretboard.
To see Fleck struggling for victory over a musical challenge spoke not just to his unique talents, but his unsurpassed musical ambition. It has been more than two decades since Fleck appeared on the music scene, immediately reinventing the vocabulary of the banjo, first in bluegrass and newgrass, then jazz, rock, pop and world music. As immense as his abilities, he has also made it look easy.
So Fleck has set the bar higher still, and Sunday he had bassist Meyer to assist in the ascent. Meyer is another musician who has considered his instrument's perceived limitations as lines drawn in the sand, waiting for dares and double dares. Like Fleck, his technique long ago reached the point where one forgets about the instrument, hearing only the music--no small accomplishment on bass--or banjo.
The program mixed classical miniatures by the likes of Scarlatti, Tchaikovsky and J.S. Bach with original compositions and improvisations. While the "classical" pieces were dispatched with beauty and an impressive range of expression, it was the pair's original material that delivered the transcendent moments.
Meyer is becoming a major player in the world of classical composition, and one of his primary strengths is in creating music that is well crafted and challenging, yet instantly appealing, which also describes Fleck's writing. The duo revisited numbers from prior collaborations, but more recent pieces, several untitled, displayed a deepening sense of focus and wider range of techniques.
One that did have a title, Meyer's "Pile Up," straddled quirky humor with invigorating improvising, providing one of the high points. The title, incidentally, comes from a joke in the series of children's books, "Captain Underpants." In the realm of "serious" composition, that must be a first.
Perhaps the most revealing sequence came with Fleck's unaccompanied piece, or more accurately, medley. The nearly full house would have been forgiven for assuming his ingenious embellishments on "The Star-Spangled Banner" would lead into further patriotic tunes, but Fleck followed the tribute to America with music by bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs before moving into yet more Bach. That the collection of disparate themes and styles melded into a unified whole reflected Fleck's brilliance, his mind able to hear connections otherwise unimagined.
Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune