Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, Yo-yo Ma – The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011)

The so-called “new acoustic” movement has provided us with a number of musicians with phenomenal skills, a restless spirit and great collaborative gifts. Mandolin player Chris Thile epitomises the school. Supposedly a “Bluegrass” player – and to be fair, that is the foundation of his art – he has the inclination and the skills to investigate and take on a wide range of music. Bassist Edgar Meyer is an even more eclectic musician with formidable chops and an oeuvre that speaks of his wide ranging interests and sensibilities – from Bach to Bluegrass.

On this album they come together with the justly lauded cellist Yo-yo Ma and top Nashville studio fiddler Stuart Duncan. Ma has engaged in this kind of collaborative cross-genre work before, working with some of the finest players in contemporary bluegrass – including Allison Krauss and Mark O’Connor and, several times, Meyer – but this is arguably the most successful such project he’s been involved in.

There seems to have been little in the way of preconceptions about what the results would be. Intriguingly Ma felt unable to improvise, a mode of operation that comes very naturally to the others, and Duncan, for all his deserved reputation as a top studio player, doesn’t read music. So they quartet had to figure out a way of working that facilitated both approaches without compromising the performance. Great players – and these guys deserve the G… word – are able to extend themselves and to cover wide ground, and so it is here – and very successfully so.

The Goat Rodeo Sessions presents us with a highly skilled quartet of stringed instrument players who manage to cross borders and plough a new furrow at the same time. The listener can detect traces of Ma’s classical background, the country and bluegrass on which Thile and Duncan cut their teeth and the jazz that Meyer brings to the party, but the fusion produces music that is not easily pigeon holed, which some critics feel is effectively a new American style of music and in which the various influences come together in a very natural sounding and non-jarring way.

The album opens with a mandolin motif that is fresh and as American as a stream running down a slope in the Rockies. From that start they conjure up an intriguing and very melodic set of performances that are full of top-notch playing and rich with ideas and surprise.

Everybody except poor old non-improvising Ma reveals themselves to be a high-quality multi-instrumentalist. Thile turns to guitar on “Helping Hand” and even to fiddle on “Where’s My Bow”. Duncan, who, for a while, played electric guitar behind Allison Krauss and Robert Plant, takes over the mandolin when Thile is having fun on the guitar and also adds banjo on a couple of tracks. Meyer lays down some piano tracks. In each case the performances are high class. Ma sticks to what he’s good at (and he IS very, very good). The three non-classical players reveal themselves to be every bit the player that Ma is – though if you’ve followed their careers and have heard them on other projects this may not actually be a big revelation.

Meyer and Thile conjure up marvellous grooves on “Quarter Chicken Dark” (which gets downright funky at times) and “Less Is Moi”. All compositions are credited to Thile, Duncan and Meyer – so Ma misses out again despite being the most famous name involved.

The album was released on a classical imprint, and it’s recorded the way that orchestral albums are – with microphones suspended over a stage rather than having the individual instruments close-miced and isolated. This approach, and a lack of processing on the audio tracks, gives the recording a large dynamic range and these players – and occasional guest vocalist Aiofe O’Donovan – have the skills and the judgement to explore this full range of expression. Like an orchestra they can move from a roar to a whisper as required. There’s a very nice ambience to the recording too. Frustratingly (for me) this adds up to a record that can be a difficult listen on earbuds whilst riding a train. You turn it up on the quiet passages and then a little later you get the wax blown out of your ears as Ma and Co crank the handle. But the transitions in volume, the use of dynamics, are always to very good musical effect – a notable example being O’Donovan and Thile’s vocals on “Here and Heaven” where they build up to a great climax, mixing control and emotion.

There’s a lot to enthuse about here. The playing is top-notch throughout, with all the players showing enviable technique and great clarity. The recording is simply marvellous and marvellous in it’s simplicity. The compositions are challenging but also rewarding and ultimately satisfying and enjoyable. And throughout they play with a relaxed precision and the spark that comes from working together in real time – effectively performing live – and my imagination fancies, and it’s not that implausible when you LISTEN to this album, that they’re all completely stoked at being able to work with such high class and open-minded players and loving every minute of it.

It isn’t rock ‘n roll nor is it bluegrass nor, despite the martketing, easily described as “classical”. I’m not sure what it is. And it doesn’t matter because it’s a marvellous collection that will reward repeated listenings.


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