Album Reviews

Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

(Nonesuch) UK release date: 8 September 2014

Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer - Bass & Mandolin Here is one of the most empathetic duo recordings of recent years, with two masters weaving and dancing around each other with wonderful agility. Beautifully recorded, Bass & Mandolin is both the simple artefact its title suggests and also so much more. Both Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer are noted virtuosos, pushing at the expressive and technical boundaries of their respective instruments. Thile is versatile too – as at home interpreting JS Bach as he is in outward reaching folk ensembles such as Nickel Creek or Punch Brothers.

He is also an astute improviser, having also worked in a similarly successful duo with pianist Brad Mehldau. Perhaps the nearest point of comparison for the variety of his work is the great guitarist and composer Bill Frisell (although Frisell would probably shy away from some of the more flamboyant flourishes in Thile’s playing). Meyer is highly regarded as a solo classical performer but he is also an excellent composer with a refreshingly open mind. Both musicians are MacArthur fellows. Thile and Meyer have been performing together on and off for nearly 15 years, but this is only the second time their majestic interplay has been recorded (they can also be heard in a quartet with Yo-Yo Ma and Stuart Duncan on The Great Rodeo Sessions).

Bass & Mandolin is a collection of ten original compositions. Some sound impressively honed, and it isn’t hard to imagine them as part of a recovered American folk tradition (particularly El Cinco Real). Yet as a whole, this is far from a reflective or nostalgic album. The purely acoustic duo find new and intriguing ways to combine the sounds of their instruments, from the playful darting lines and rhythmic trickery of Big Top to Meyer’s lush and languid handling of melody on The Auld Beagle. This self produced recording, superbly engineered by Dave Sinko, seems to capture every nuance and detail of the duo’s performance, from sprightly, rapid-fire mandolin runs to deftly handled harmonics. There is a palpable ambient room sound too, which succeeds in lending atmosphere and resonance to the music. Listening on headphones is an immersive experience.

Meyer’s classical skills mean he is technically adept at arco playing, making bowed bass sound both beautiful and thrilling. On Look What I Found, he also contributes some delicate, subtle piano playing, which helps provide different textures and harmonies. Similarly, Thile occasionally substitutes acoustic guitar for his mandolin, a move which makes significant changes to the mood of the music. The flexibility in both instrumentation and approaches to playing aids the frequently dazzling switching between melodic and accompanying roles that very much characterises Thile and Meyer’s musical interactions.

Throughout the album, the duo display an impressive and highly effective dynamic range, demonstrating that purely acoustic music is often the best vehicle for contrast and surprise. Here are two human beings completely in control of both their musical language and their sound. Sometimes the songs deliver very clear emotions – the melancholy power of memory in I’ll Remember For You for example – but elsewhere the melodic and emotional qualities of the music are a little more opaque and need some unpicking. This is not a bad thing – this is music that places demands on the listener but which amply rewards careful attention.

The music here is very difficult to categorise. Although it draws liberally from folk traditions, it is too forward thinking to be classed strictly as folk music. The music also encourages spontaneity and improvisation, and there are moments when it sounds almost radical. It also has a chamber quality that links it back to Meyer’s classical background and to Thile’s abundant love for Bach. Yet both musicians are also unafraid of straightforwardly beautiful sounds, and there is a sense of care and craftsmanship in every performance, as well as the kind of crisp, brilliant articulation that might be expected.

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Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin