Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer
Bass & Mandolin
Nonesuch Records, 544735-2, (2014)
CD Review by Hermon Joyner
Bass & Mandolin is the second CD project from Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer. Their first duo album came out in 2008 and was simply self-titled, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile. And if you are looking for contemporary musicians performing at the height of their artistic creativity, technical ability, and musical genre jumping capability, then Thile and Meyer are the best option out there today. Between the two of them, they have pop, bluegrass, classical, jazz, folk, and even avant-garde music well in hand. Coming into such a collaboration from these two musical geniuses, you might have unreasonably high expectations. And even if you did, you’ll still find a lot to like in this album.
Each track is a separate original composition written by these two. Sometimes the tone and inclination of the piece will move in one direction or another. For instance, the first track, “Why Only One?”, opens with Thile softly playing a country folk music style tune, but then Meyer joins in with a series of percussive blows from his bowed bass, which prompts a series of back and forth exchanges between the two players. In this first tune, they both explore the tonal and dynamic ranges of their two instruments, and this sets the groundwork for the rest of the album.
In terms of stand-out performances, “Big Top” demonstrates Thile’s complete mastery of the mandolin fretboard from the lowest note to the absolute highest. The high notes in particular are played with the force and purity of a grand piano being struck. He follows this up with “Look What I Found,” which is soft and flowing, and on this Thile is backed up by Meyer on the piano, instead of the bass. And then Thile takes his turn on the guitar on the next track, “Friday,” proving his facility on that instrument, too.
More than anything, Bass & Mandolin shows two masters at both work and play at the same time, creating the music and realizing it in performance. Bass & Mandolin is in turns emotional, moving, introspective, powerful, exciting, and, at times, even challenging. Recently, this album won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album and that is an award that it deserves, though the very name of the frankly vague award speaks to some of the challenges found in this project. In fact, this CD is rather hard to pin down, in terms of what musical genre it fits into, and for some people, that could be a drawback. If anything, Bass & Mandolin sounds more like contemporary classical music that takes turns borrowing from experimental music and bluegrass music, but sticks with neither one for very long. Not that this is intended as criticism. In fact, Bass & Mandolin is certainly one of the best albums of 2014 and if you are a fan of either one of these two gentlemen, as I am, you will definitely like this one. This gets my highest recommendation.
Track List: Why Only One?; Tarnation; The Auld Beagle; Big Top; Look What I Found; Friday; El Cinco Real; Monkey Actually; I’ll Remember For You; It’s Dark In Here