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May 8, 2003
New York Newsday
“A Bassist’s Instincts” by Justin Davidson
Meyer’s bass doubles as a classical and bluegrass instrument
Edgar Meyer does not travel light. There is, for starters, his lifelong, life-sized inanimate companion, his double bass, which on a bright spring afternoon he is wheeling across the delta of flowing traffic in front of Lincoln Center, his home away from Nashville. Then there are the accessories of an itinerant composer/chamber musician/bluegrass virtuoso’s life: a laptop computer, an electronic piano keyboard, one or two hard drives containing recordings in need of editing for commercial release and a suitcase full of cables with which to convert a small hotel room into a temporary studio.
Meyer does not just play double bass; he has transformed it from an unwieldy, mumbling member of an ensemble’s support staff into an instrument of great lyrical grace and range. In conversation, he is quick to pay his respects to bass-playing, spotlight-loving jazzmen like Ray Brown and Stanley Clarke. But Meyer is really a different sort of beast, equally at ease among improvisers and score-reading classical musicians, as adept with the bow as any great violinist, and nonchalant about pushing the bass into the high tenor range.
“I have to get out to the physical edge of the instrument to make a living,” he says, ruefully. “But I don’t want to treat it just like an extreme sport. I want the bass’ natural voice to come out.”
On Sunday afternoon at Town Hall, Meyer will perform that rarity of the concert world, a double bass recital, along with pianist Amy Dorfman. The skeptical will grimace at his program, which includes works composed for other, more agile instruments by Vivaldi, Schubert, Bloch, Chopin and Kreisler, as well as a fistful of Meyer’s own short concert pieces. But those who have heard him play any of the Bach cello suites know that what begins as wonder at his prowess soon turns into the serene pleasure of hearing a great musician at work.
Last year, Meyer won a MacArthur grant, a $500,000 bolt from the blue that strikes America’s most radically creative minds. He got it not just for being a very good bass player, but also because, in his wry, quiet way, he has been steadily pushing two vastly different worlds of American music into each others’ arms. He spends a good part of his life in the company of bluegrass eminences such as mandolin players Sam Bush and Béla Fleck, and another part with classical stars such as violinist Joshua Bell. Meyer’s old band was called Strength in Numbers. Now he tours with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
“What I love is playing in small groups with close friends – it’s always about that,” Meyer shrugs. “Whatever music I’m playing, I’m the same person, the same player, and it’s the same voice on the instrument.”
As a composer, too, Meyer inhabits an indistinct zone, writing amiably dazzling concertos for himself – as well as, say, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma or violinist Hilary Hahn – to play with orchestra, but also working out group improvisations with bandmates. He mentions that he and his longtime friend, collaborator and musical sparring partner Fleck, are composing a joint concerto for themselves and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s easier than writing something on my own,” he says. “There are certain places you can’t go when you’re working with someone, that are 100 percent personal. But there’s a whole lot of ideas you get from someone else that I never would have thought of.”
Meyer was born in 1960, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., a mountain enclave of nuclear physicists originally assembled to help build the atom bomb. His father played bass – both the jazz and classical varieties – and taught music in public schools, as well as at home: At the age of 5, Edgar was already throwing his arms around an adult-sized instrument. “It seemed like the most natural thing,” he says. “I was much older before it occurred to me that it wasn’t the most obvious choice in the world.”
When he was 10, the piano arrived in the house, and Edgar began exploring that instrument, with affection but not quite the same intensity of purpose. By the time he was 12, father and son would cram their basses into the family car and go join the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra – an experience Meyer cherishes as much for the half-hour’s undistracted conversation with his father as for the opportunity to play through much of the standard orchestral repertoire before he was even in high school.
Three decades later, Meyer has moved out of prodigyhood, past ordinary mastery and into that specialized realm of musicians who shape an instrument’s history. He is not impressed. It’s time, he says, to shake off a certain MacArthur-induced complacency and get back to basics. “I’m a little bit of a baby as an improviser,” he remarks. “And also as a composer.”
©2003 New York Newsday