Photo by Jim McGuire
There’s nothing like being in a symphony hall and experiencing the sound of a double bass. The tone of the instrument is enhanced by the beauty of the room and the reverence for hundreds of years of Western musical culture. The low, resonant notes fill the space like fresh coffee being poured into your favorite mug; they are rich and comforting, aurally aromatic and sensual. This particular concert featured Punch Brothers with bassist Paul Kowert, a truly exceptional player who will likely have a long and prosperous career. As I looked up from my seat during the intermission, the great Edgar Meyer happened to be chatting with someone a few rows up. Kowert, who studied under Meyer at the Curtis Institute of music, exhibited the musicality, patience, technical precision, and grace of a master—traits that were likely encouraged and nurtured by Meyer. For those of you unfamiliar with Meyer, the beauty of his playing is immeasurable, the eclecticism of his musical repertoire unrivaled, and the company he keeps a reflection of his brilliance and reputation. A certified genius and an accomplished performer of classical, jazz, bluegrass, and world music, Edgar Meyer is a bass player to know.
So Who Is Edgar Meyer?
The son of a bass player and high school music teacher, Meyer immediately took to the double bass and began studying at the age of five. He continued his education at Indiana University and the Aspen Music School under famed double bassist and educator, Stuart Sankey. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, he recorded with countless country, bluegrass, and Americana artists, including Garth Brooks, Lyle Lovett, Jerry Douglas, Travis Tritt, and Emmylou Harris. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1994, the Avery Fisher Prize in 2000, and the MacArthur Award in 2002.
Celebrated for his varied musical ability, compositional practices, and solo performances, he has performed with Joshua Bell and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, The Nashville Symphony, and many others. A self-titled solo project, released in 2006, featured original compositions and demonstrated his versatility as a multi-instrumentalist. He has collaborated and performed with fellow bassist Christian McBride and has released projects with Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck and Zakir Hussain, and mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. The 2012 release of “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” featuring Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Thile, and Stuart Duncan earned him a Grammy for Best Folk Album. A visiting professor at the Curtis Institute of Music, he continues to compose, record, and perform the world over.
Let’s Talk Style
As with all great musicians, the instrument is a voice—a medium of expression that is so obviously representative of their personality and style that their music communicates as much or more than words ever could. The double bass is clearly an extension of Meyer; his playing is soulful, organic, and an amazingly eloquent form of expression. The purity of his tone is something that every instrumentalist should aspire to—the combination of a beautiful instrument and a player perfectly in tune with it. He plays each note deliberately, with keen attention to duration, dynamics, and function. Backed by years of study, he performs and composes in a way that exhibits his technical mastery, flawless intonation, and utmost musicality.
It’s often said that a person is only as good as the company they keep, and in Meyer’s case, that is an esteemed group of the world’s greatest musicians. His collaborations are eclectic both in genre and instrumentation, from classical duets with Joshua Bell to bluegrass ensembles with Bela Fleck or Chris Thile. Meyer fits in with the greatest of ease, honoring the traditions of the genre while integrating his own voice.
He often plays in drummer-less situations, holding himself and the other musicians fully accountable for rhythm and time keeping. Whether he is playing finger style or bowing, his ability to dictate time is impeccable; his pizzicato notes are quick, even, and precise. He breathes life into the bowed notes, enhancing the dynamics of a single note by the way he glides across the strings. He has a diverse take on melody, combining classical, Bach-style arpeggiation with the brisk, modal nature of bluegrass and traditional folk music. Fearless of the higher register, he has incredible intonation and dexterity in thumb position, taking advantage of the full range of the instrument and harmonics.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Roundabout” (Edgar Meyer: Edgar Meyer)
The depth of Meyer’s musicality is difficult to fathom, especially when you hear his solo record and realize that not only is he a virtuoso bass player, but an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist. As the title suggests, this song takes the listener down a fast-paced rabbit hole of bass and piano interplay, only to fall into a soft bed of guitar and long, bowed notes on the double bass. The two sections compete against one another until the conclusion of the song, where the initial piano theme plays over the melancholy chords of the B section. Giving way to a more aggressive bass part featuring bowing and plucking, his mastery of technique is obvious and unparalleled.
“Less Is Moi” (with Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile, and Yo-Yo Ma: The Goat Rodeo Sessions)
This record is a beautiful combination of classical string ensemble infused with bluegrass and world music. Meyer and Thile lay the rhythmic groundwork on “Less Is Moi” with an up-beat centric groove, leaving space for the Ma to take the melody. Meyer is featured with a beautifully bowed bass solo where he explores the range of the instrument, with soulful low notes followed by climbing melodic lines. As the song progresses, he creeps in with the original bass theme to support the mandolin solo. His groove is undeniably funky and uncluttered, showing the perfect amount of attitude, restraint, and respect for function in the ensemble.
“Concert Duo Mvt 1” (Edgar Meyer: The Best Of Edgar Meyer)
A beautiful duet with an equally brilliant instrumentalist, this features Meyer’s talent for both rhythmic and melodic counterpoint. A conversational piece, the violin and bass feed on each other dynamically, exhibiting gentle restraint during the more contemplative moments and forceful, technically difficult dialogue. Meyer often jumps positions, especially when he grabs the melody of piece, and takes advantage of the grand nature of the instrument’s lowest notes against the violin. He integrates chords, classical arpeggiation, and chromatic movement throughout the piece, only to conclude with a reinterpretation of the opening theme.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Edgar Meyer? Please share with us in the comments.