This recording is what's known in the industry as a "crossover project," which simply means that musicians from one genre, usually classical, try their hand at another genre, usually pop, Broadway or jazz, though there certainly are many variations on this "crossover" theme in the marketplace. Very often, the end result is neither fish nor foul, and while such albums are frequently successful at the cash register, they are often met with skepticism by the cognoscenti of whatever musical types are being mingled. At worst, they are seen as ways of making a quick buck, a la the "3 Tenors," while the record companies usually defend themselves by claiming that their intention is to bring fans of various musical tastes together, thus increasing the audience for both types of music, taking us one step further into the 21st century utopia that finds everybody digging just about everything.
So, if you are a bluegrass fan thinking, "What a joke. Another example of the downfall of our music, with these pickers gettin' way above their raisin'," take comfort in knowing that there are plenty of classical music snobs who will sniff and say, "What a joke. Another example of the downfall of our music, with these classical record companies trying to dumb-down to the hayseeds."
What each side will miss, however, is 78 minutes of music that actually might appeal to both tastes. No, I'm not suggesting that die-hard purists of either camp would love this, but if one can accept that the banjo can be applied to music beyond bluegrass, and that classical composing concepts can be stirred up into something downright funky, then categories be damned, get ready for some unique and serious fun.
Most prominent as composer on this disc is acoustic bassist Edgar Meyer, with Bela Fleck next, and Mike Marshall coming in third with one composition and another co-composition. Bach, Sarasate, and Byrd also get composing credits. As players, it is more balanced, though Meyer is still the nominal star, being the only musician who appears on all seventeen tracks.
The main knock I have against the disc (other than the all-too-few improvised moments) is that, in terms of tunes, these themes are, overall, not particularly memorable. Still, what is intriguing is that, in the classical world, one need not have a great melody to make a masterpiece, since it is the inventive development of thematic material that tends to get one branded as a genius, with Beethoven being the most obvious example. It is what Meyer, Fleck and Marshall do with these sometimes sparse tunes that results in some powerful effects.
The opening title track is a perfect example. This is one of the more 'classical' selections, a Meyer original with a faintly Celtic flavor and fairly complex, intertwining writing leading to bold, dramatic staccato swells. While you won't end up humming it in the grocery store, it sure makes a good impression.
Another nice classical trick that might be borrowed from Beethoven himself is used at the beginning of one of the best New Acoustic style numbers, Meyer's and Fleck's "Chromium Picolinate," which I have been told is a popular herb for low blood sugar that can cause loss of concentration, weakness and food cravings. Whatever the title implies, it is a ripping piece of shifting meters that finds Marshall and Fleck at their newgrass best in brief solos, with a middle section reminiscent of the '70s progressive rock group Gentle Giant, where a theme is dissected and tossed around from instrument to instrument. This is anticipated in the opening, where the players alternate single notes to begin the piece, similar to the way Ludwig Van created a comparable spatial effect in the fast movement of his fourteenth string quartet.
Fleck's other compositions are, not surprisingly, the more newgrassy tunes. "Seesaw" is a jaunty little burner that skips happily through its three minutes. "Travis," which has Fleck on National guitar and Marshall on mandola and mandocello, does evoke a bit of Merle mood, somehow sounding like it should be coming out of a car radio at two AM on a desolate Oklahoma highway, even with the Strength In Numbers-style atonal tinklings that open and close the piece. The melody of "Big Country" brings "Loch Lamond" to mind, Fleck's low-tuned banjo melding effectively with Marshall's guitar. The other pure newgrass (if one accepts that "newgrass" can ever be pure) track is Marshall's high energy "Child's Play," with the composer chopping some Bush-like mandolin and the trio spinning out dazzling unison string lines aplenty.
Meyer's compositions tend to move between pseudo-modern classical and new age, though the latter never gets down to the banality of a Kenny G or George Winston. In fact, the dreamlike aura that is created on "Sliding Down" by the distantly-recorded piano (that instrument's only appearance on this disc) and that continues through the whole composition is palpable and quite appealing, like a hazy reminiscence. The lyrical tune is sweetly sentimental, which helps maintain the character of the piece even across the fortissimo section near the end, before returning and fading into quiet memory. Another reflective meditation is "By The River," with the bassist taking the simple melody for his own, backed by Fleck's gut-string guitar and Marshall's mandolin. The last of these mood pieces is the delicate "In The Garden," which this time finds Fleck's gut-strings on the banjo and Marshall on mandolin and mandola. Possibly the album's most beautiful melody, it is hypnotic and subdued yet rich enough to elicit a creative solo from Fleck.
Fan's of Meyer's "My Pet Frog" (from his superb 1986 album, "Unfolding," which in fact gave recorded birth to the quintet later known as "Strength In Numbers") should get a chuckle from "Contramonkey." Beginning with Meyer's drunken walking bass backing avant-jazz jolts from Fleck and Marshall, it leads into an exceptional middle passage that, though composed, lends the impression of spontaneous improvising, while Fleck's solo is his most exploratory of the disc. Somewhat more serious, yet still easily accessible, is "Chance Meeting," where Bartok-like rhythms and jagged harmonies climb to a violent climax before gently receding--again, a slight theme, nicely developed. "Old Tyme" mixes dances of the medieval with Appalachia, reaching a zenith of blast-furnace intensity, while the off-kilter "Barnyard Disturbance" is another of Meyer's rhythmically woozy tunes, a nightmarish marching hoedown that alternates Fleck's stinging banjo pops with Meyer's sawing bass. Meyer also gives us another movement from his "Amalgamations" (the "moderato" is on his 1987 disc, "Dreams of Flight"), and if you never thought five and a half minutes of solo bass could pass quickly, prepare to be proven wrong.
Of the two classical transcriptions, Meyer's traversal of the mournful then brilliant "Zigeunerweisen" of Sarasate is by far the more successful. A violinist's showpiece, Meyer might be the only bassist who could arrange this piece for the ol' doghouse and then play it so perfectly as well as profoundly. Marshall's sensitive mandolin accompaniment should not be overlooked. The Bach transcription is decent, and while it is nice to hear these contrapuntal lines so well delineated by this trio of instruments, it is also a bit metronomic in delivery and offers no particular insights into Bach. Still, one must give them credit for tackling such an imposing masterpiece instead of going for one of Bach's more popular "greatest hits."
Wrapping up the disc, and my review (if you've read this far, the album is probably for you), is "The Big Cheese," which was composed by all three trio members, and has a bit of William Byrd tossed in as well. The extreme gear shifts and loopy swings of temperament provide a fitting finale, like all three waving goodbye and smiling as if to say "We hope you had as much fun as we did."
(Sony Classical, 550 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022-3211) DR