Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., February 28, 2004) – It would be hard to find two more adventurous musicians than banjoist Bela Fleck and double bassist Edgar Meyer. Both are virtuosos on their instruments in the styles with which they are most associated – Fleck, an avatar of bluegrass banjo who has propelled the music into the jam-rock orbit, and Meyer, whose classical music pedigree and bona fides mesh with an early immersion in jazz.

But both are also musically perverse, in the sense of their being disposed to depart from received notions of genre in their approach to their instruments, their repertoire, their performance, even within what for them constitutes a song. This left-of-center approach was fully on display in their duet concert at Mass MoCA’s Hunter Theater on Saturday night, when the diverse audience mirrored the eclectic program that touched on many aspects of Fleck’s and Meyer’s careers.

For over two decades the players have shared their omnivorous outlook, Meyer coaxing Fleck toward the classical repertoire, Fleck drawing Meyer into the world of American roots music and his progressive approach, for which Meyer’s jazz and classical background particularly suits him.

Saturday night’s concert reflected and refracted all of this in various ways. The partners tackled jazz improvisations by Miles Davis, composed works by J.S. Bach and Henry Eccles, and original numbers that have grown out of their unique musical partnership.

It has always been Fleck’s blessing and curse that, given his instrument, whatever he touches outside of old-time and bluegrass tradition has a hint of novelty. Other than in early jazz, the banjo hasn’t typically traveled beyond its entry points in American music, and -- as anyone familiar with the ever-expanding volume of banjo jokes will attest – perhaps for good reason.

But in Fleck’s hands, the banjo is often not a banjo. On the Bach pieces, including a prelude from The Well Tempered Clavier, it was a harpsichord, and if you closed your eyes you really might have been fooled for a moment.

More satisfying, however, was Fleck’s approach to Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo” – the piece that gave him the title to his first album on Sony Classical, “Perpetual Motion.” Here, the banjo was a banjo, and what was striking was how he conveyed a relationship between Paganini’s violin and bluegrass banjo.

Other highlights included a canon written by Meyer – a round, he explained to the crowd, but not a sing-along – in which Fleck repeated everything Meyer played one measure later. What was most striking about this piece was that even though Fleck was, as Meyer joked, “copying” him, both played in their quintessential voices

“Palmyra,” a duo composition, was one of several numbers for which Meyer switched from bass to piano. The piece opened with the haunting tolling of bells, answered by Fleck with a minor-key, folk spiritual-type melody. Meyer elaborated on Fleck’s melody with different chord voicings while Fleck offered rolling waves of notes. After Meyer switched back to bass for a dour, bluesy bowed bass solo, Fleck took the piece for a walk through the barnyard.

By nature the concert was limited in scope. Even with their wide-ranging musical imaginings, there was only so far Fleck and Meyer could go with just a banjo and a bass. At nearly three hours, including intermission, and in a very hot room, this made for a long, somewhat uncomfortable night out.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 1, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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