Edgar Meyer - from Bach & Botessini to bluegrass
Edgar Meyer has a different take on the old "if you want to get to Carnegie Hall, practise" gag delivered to those seeking directions to the famous New York venue.
The man who has been hailed by at least one reviewer as the best double bass player alive recently appeared at the Carnegie in a duet with vocalist Bobby McFerrin without any rehearsals at all. He and McFerrin hadn’t even met up to that point, but they got along just fine.
"I had no idea what we were going to play, whether it was going to be a jazz song or some Mozart, both of which Bobby is entirely at ease with, or whatever," says Meyer, who himself is entirely at ease with jazz, Mozart and a lot more besides. "In the end we just went on stage and improvised something from scratch in front of this capacity audience - and I tell you, that’s definitely a way to get to know somebody."
Meyer has yet to decide what he’ll be playing in his solo spot when he makes his Scottish debut in the Scottish Ensemble’s Bluegrass Across the Water tour next week. It might be something spontaneous. Equally it might be something that he composed for some of his other collaborators, who have included cellist Yo Yo Ma, renowned violinist Joshua Bell, banjo wonder Bela Fleck, the amazing mandolinist Chris Thile, and Jerry Douglas, the poet of the dobro who features on BBC TV’s Transatlantic Sessions series.
What he can confirm is that he’ll be playing the B Minor Concerto by Giovanni Bottesini, the Paganini of the double bass. By this time it should be clear, then, that Meyer isn’t the sort of person who puts music in little boxes.
"I’ve never understood that," says the Oklahoma-born, Nashville-based Meyer who grew up in the heart of country music with a jazz bass-playing father. "To me, music is a common language with many different dialects. If I was to name my favourite ten players on any instrument, they’d all be different types of musician with different backgrounds."
Meyer’s own background is that from the minute he could speak, he let everyone know that he wanted to be like his dad. This is nothing unusual for a young boy but whereas some youngsters’ ambitions change as their vocabularies and experiences grow, Meyer’s intentions never wavered. The arrival of a violin when he was four, and not perhaps quite ready for the double bass’s reach, only put off the inevitable for a year.
At this point his father spotted a bass that had literally fallen off the back of a lorry and was now serving in a nearby garden as a plant holder. Meyer senior rescued and restored it and it remained Edgar’s near-constant companion until he was twenty-three. It now resides in his Nashville music room, where he still enjoys playing it.
"My dad loved music and it was because he didn’t learn to read music or play with a bow until he was twenty-five that he made sure those were the first things I learned to do," says Meyer. "This meant studying classical music, which I’m really glad I did, but I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to learn. There are trade-offs in the different methods. For example, the pianists who play the most technically demanding classical pieces tend not to play with the same ease of rhythm that improvisers have. Some people are good at spanning the gap between the two approaches but it’s very rare to find musicians who can do both naturally. That’s what I like especially about Bobby McFerrin and Chris Thile – they can play Mozart or Bach with perfect discipline and they can groove freely."
When he left the University of Indiana, Meyer’s ability to move with ease from classical pieces to country and bluegrass found him busy on both concert platforms and the Nashville session scene. During a recording date with Bela Fleck in the mid 1980s, he asked Fleck, who was already turning heads with his banjo magic, if he might help him with a demo tape he was planning. Fleck went a couple of steps further, bringing along Jerry Douglas and mandolin luminary Sam Bush to the session.
The ‘demo’ became Unfolding, Meyer’s first album and the forerunner of a series including Appalachian Journey, which featured Yo Yo Ma, multi-instrumental wiz Mark O’Connor and James Taylor, and the 2006 album, Edgar Meyer, on which Meyer played all the instruments including piano, guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo, and double bass. Unfolding was also the beginning of a long friendship with Douglas, with whom Meyer formed the outstanding Skip, Hop & Wobble trio that also featured guitarist Russ Barenberg playing their very own bluegrass, jazz and beyond style.
Meyer gave up Nashville session work fifteen years ago because he was becoming too busy with other projects including his recordings of Bach’s solo cello suites re-scored for double bass. Of all the many composers whose work he has performed, Bach is his favourite. Indeed, he says, he made a conscious decision to base his own approach as much as possible on Bach’s requirements.
"Playing his music on the bass is never going to be natural because he’s particularly difficult," he says. "That’s the thing about the bass: it can do some wonderful things but it can’t necessarily do everything that other instruments do automatically. But I find the extra effort that it takes with Bach is simply worth it."
The attraction of Bottesini, on the other hand, is that the 19th century Italian was a bass player – Meyer reckons a great one – who also composed.
"He may not have been the equal of Verdi and Rossini – in fact, he definitely wasn’t Verdi’s equal – but he wrote good melodies and the fact that he knew his way around the bass so well means that the music really fits the instrument," he says. "That makes it much more fun to play than if a non-bass player had written it and I always look forward to playing it."
From The Herald, March 13, 2008