Bela Fleck, banjos; Edgar Meyer, double bass, piano
Music For Two pairs two long-time friends and sometime collaborators for an evening of creative genre-bending. Double bassist Edgar Meyer, whose impossibly agile bowing and plucking on that big daddy of the violin family brings together bluegrass, Celtic and world music elements simultaneously, makes a very compatible partner with Bela Fleck, who is a virtuoso of the banjo and a pioneer of that instrument in Jazz, fusion and beyond. It is a wonder how each is equally at home with Jazz and bluegrass improvising, on the one hand, and the refined interpretation of the classics, on the other. Even so, to accomplish this marriage in one satisfying program, relying almost entirely on these instruments in particular, is a tall order indeed. Fortunately, each has compositional chops to go along with his instrumental firepower, and they have contributed some interesting original material for the program, interspersed with covers of J.S. Bach, Miles Davis and others.
A bonus, adding variety to the sonic palette, is Meyer's fluid piano work on several numbers. To these ears, the sound of piano together with banjo, when it's played in the ultra-hip manner of Fleck, is even more arresting and unusual than bass fiddle with banjo. In either case, the two don't seem limited in any way, since each is perfectly comfortable accompanying or taking the lead, on whichever instrument.
Though this release on Sony Classical is hardly a Jazz record, per se, the instrumental flexibility and ingenuity involved in these performances would be instructional and entertaining even to Jazz players and fans, I would think. Aside from the awesome string-playing dexterity of the two musicians, Meyer's writing in particular beautifully synthesizes classical, early American folk and bluegrass elements into a recognizable and palatable new voice. Like a more vital or contemporary Aaron Copland, the authenticity and sophistication of his writing alone leaves the rank and file of ënew acoustic musicí musicians, dabbling in Jazzy bluegrass hybrids, in the dust. Jazz or not, this is very "American" sounding music, and even on the arrangement of Bach etudes, the effortlessness with which Fleck and Meyer change roles is astounding: now Fleck is comping on the banjo and Meyer soloing like a violin or a tenor sax on the bass fiddle; now Meyer is laying down a figured bass, walking or even a perpetual motion pattern in chording, while Fleckís banjo dances and flutters above and around.
In short, though billed as a classical release, and while certainly qualifying as an exceptional "chamber music" ensemble, Music For Two seems targeted for "newgrass" or similar audiences more than anything. Whatever label you attach, it is still creative music, mostly composed but riddled with deft improvisation, from a duo beyond category.
by Eric Golub
Copyright Jazz Now, April 2004 issue, all rights reserved
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