REVIEW: Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer

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Thursday October 11, 2007

from The Oregonian

Two masters making music in a magical land of styles

By James McQuillen

Halfway through the second half of their concert at Kaul Auditorium Sunday night, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolinist Chris Thile announced they were just about out of music, so they needed suggestions from the audience for a new tune. The packed house was more than happy to oblige. Thile gathered a few of the ideas together and asked, ‘Can we do a song about a debate between coffee and a broken dishwasher?’

‘Too abstract,’ Meyer replied.

But they did it anyway, in a freewheeling improvisation that began mellow and sleepy; brightened with an injection of rhythmic and harmonic caffeine; turned into a terse back and forth; returned to the caffeine music and ended in a hug —first musical, then literal.
The two, who appeared courtesy of Chamber Music Northwest, are masters of their respective instruments unconstrained by considerations of genre. Meyer, 47, has long had a foot firmly planted in the classical world, as a performer and composer. The 27-year-old Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek and currently with Punch Brothers, has less experience in the classical idiom but seems equally comfortable moving in that direction; his four-movement chamber suite ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ received its premiere at Carnegie Hall last year. Both are fixtures in the bluegrass scene, but their collaboration covered a broader territory, a sort of magical never-never land where bluegrass and roots rock meet jazz and classical.

Much of the program came from their new duo album, which features tunes with titles such ‘Fence Post in the Front Yard’ and ‘The Farmer and the Duck,’ though there were a few sweet arrangements of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. As the titles suggest, there was a down-home, easygoing sensibility to the music, which tempered their amazing technical and harmonic facility.

Though clearly on the same wavelength, they performed with wildly different styles: The unflappable Meyer leaned into his bass, stroking and plucking even the most complicated passages with a sense of utter calm, while Thile moved as though he was receiving electric shocks with his feet nailed to the floor when he went off on a virtuoso tear. Between numbers they indulged in deadpan repartee with wit so dry, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see a tumbleweed roll slowly across the stage.