On the recent album with his new band the Punch Brothers, Chris Thile unveiled a 42-minute suite that betrayed his ambition to go beyond his bluegrass beginnings and move into the world of serious art music. The 27-year-old mandolin virtuoso could find no better mentor for that journey than the 47-year-old bassist Edgar Meyer. Meyer also began in the string-band world, where he recorded with the likes of BÃ©la Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor. He has moved so successfully into classical music that his compositions have been recorded by Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn; Meyer was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002.
The new album, "Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile," features the two musicians on 12 unaccompanied duets that they composed and produced themselves. This is perhaps Thile's least accessible album, for there are no Tolkienesque lyrics, no vocals at all and few conventionally pretty melodies. But it also represents the most substantial music Thile has recorded, for the give-and-take between the high-pitched mandolin and the deeply resounding bass is full of dark drama and rigorous musical architecture. While Thile's rambunctious, fleet-fingered runs imply high spirits, Meyer's bowed bass hints at a melancholy awareness of life's losses.
"The Farmer and the Duck," for example, begins with Meyer stating the theme up in the cello range, while Thile chops out a bluegrass rhythm. When the mandolin takes over the spry melody, you can almost picture the duck scampering about the farmyard, but the bass's shadowy counterpoint reminds us of the duck's ultimate fate at the farmer's hands.
The deluxe version of the album comes with a 50-minute DVD featuring live performances and interviews.
--Geoffrey Himes (Oct. 2008)