New music for banjo and bass

Edgar Meyer and Bela Fleck

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., February 24, 2004) – When it was originally proposed to banjoist Bela Fleck that he record an album of compositions by the likes of Bach, Chopin, Beethoven and Debussy, he thought it was a bad idea.

“How could the banjo possibly sound as good on a piece of music as the instrument that Paganini originally wrote it for,” he asked rhetorically in a recent phone interview from Bloomington, Ind. “It’s a completely unnatural act, so in a way it was a losing proposition. I thought it’d make more sense to write new music in a classical vein that was specifically written for the banjo.”

But with the help of his long-time friend and musical collaborator, bassist Edgar Meyer, Fleck recorded “Perpetual Motion,” which consisted entirely of classical pieces. Released by Sony Classical in 2001, the CD went on to win Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover Album and Best Instrumental Arrangement.

When Fleck and Meyer went out on tour following the release of “Perpetual Motion,” they decided to pepper their concerts with more than just the tunes from the CD. They added some compositions of their own, and began working on new pieces that included improvisational passages drawing on their backgrounds in jazz and bluegrass.

They recorded several of those concerts, and the result of their groundbreaking, genre-busting collaboration will be heard on “Music for Two,” a live album scheduled for release by Sony Classical on May 4.

In the meantime, local fans can get a sneak preview of what “Music for Two” has to offer when Fleck and Meyer team up for a duo concerts at the Troy (N.Y.) Savings Bank Music Hall on Friday night and Mass MoCA (413-662-2111) on Saturday night at 8.

Both Fleck and Meyer, who have known each other for over two decades, are no strangers to the untried. With solid classical credentials – he’s the only bassist to have won the Avery Fisher Prize, and a frequent guest performer at festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood, Caramoor and Marlboro – Meyer has always had an expansive musical palette. He grew up playing jazz with his bassist father, and he was a member of the progressive bluegrass band Strength in Numbers with Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor. With O’Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, he recorded the bestselling, Grammy Award-winning albums “Appalachia Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey.”

While Fleck is perhaps best-known for his work in progressive bluegrass with the New Grass Revival, and for moving into jam-band territory with his rock group, the Flecktones, he was destined at birth to make a mark in classical music when he was named Bela Anton Leos, for Bartok, Dvorak and Janacek, respectively. While Fleck may have lured Meyer toward country music when he moved to Nashville, Meyer first got Fleck to view the banjo as an instrument of classical possibilities when he asked him to play on his 1997 album, “Uncommon Ritual.”

At first, said Fleck, the technical challenges of playing classical music on banjo were immense. “Just getting the notes to sound and getting from one note to the next -- I knew the notes were there but didn’t know if they were playable,” he said. “I had to find ways to make that work. I had to figure out how to apply what I knew to make the music sound like it was supposed to be on the banjo. It turned out in the end it sounded like it fit, and that was my goal -- to forget that it was a banjo playing it.”

Likewise, when Meyer first began playing freer, improvised music, he had to unlearn some habits, and Fleck pushed him in that direction. “He’s certainly the only person who was both critical but yet very supportive of my trying to raise to a higher level as an improvising player,” he said, “especially in terms of just trying to solidify a lot of my rhythmic issues.”

Although the two musicians share a broad, all-encompassing outlook, they say they are very different people.

“We both are obsessive with a lot of music issues, and we both can take a pretty high intensity of someone that might be pretty scary for other folks,” said Meyer. “We enjoy going as hard as we can after things.

“Our temperaments are not exactly the same. Bela externally runs quicker than I do. My nature is a bit slow and he likes to multitask. He’s a little more of a move-on-to-the-next-thing guy, and I’m a little more stay-with-something-for-three-years.”

“For us, music is like religion,” said Fleck. “It’s that important to both of us. The details about how we play the banjo or bass are about as important as anything else in the world. When we play together we both play from a real place of passion and conviction. And when you perform with someone you love as a person – he’s one of my true friends who have stuck by me in hard times and been together in good times -- that’s another wonderful thing. There are a number of people like that, but he’s one of the very best.

“I don’t think I have a better friend than him, and we’re very honest with each other. We don’t mind getting in a fight. We can fight and we get through it.”

Meyer acknowledges there is something of a novelty element to what he and Fleck do. “We get some kind of superficial uniqueness points on our instruments,” he said. “That certainly dresses it up and makes it seem like something new. But I think of us more as two guys trying to play music and trying to connect with people.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on February 27, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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