One Hand Playing: Double Bassist Edgar Meyer
Double bassist launches a Zen quest
A Zen homily advises those who wish to learn about themselves to seek out their flaws. For Edgar Meyer, that means getting as far away from the double bass as possible. The problem, if you want to call it that, is his transcendent relationship with the instrument, which has developed to the point where flaws have become either distant memories or the smallest of distractions. And so, on his latest Sony Classical album, Edgar Meyer, he tries something new: a solo effort in the fullest sense of the word, in which he plays every note, not only on his Gabrielli 1769 bass, but also on a few instruments that, as he puts it, “I can barely play at all.”
It’s not hard to hear what he means. Amidst all the stunning bass work we’ve come to expect from Meyer, there’s plenty of well-executed piano, some fiddle whines and banjo plucks, and so on down to a moment or two of Resonator slide guitar that’s attempted, apparently, only when absolutely necessary. This may seem strange to those who are accustomed to hearing Meyer executing at the highest level with people like Béla Fleck, Mark O’Connor, and Yo-Yo Ma. But Edgar Meyer isn’t that kind of endeavor.
In fact, it’s more about that Zen quest than anything he’s ever put on disc.
“I’ve been dying to do this project for the past 20 years,” he insists. “The idea of creating something through all the stages, from writing and playing to recording, from genesis up to a CD, feels to me like writing a novel or doing a sculpture. In music, some of Stevie Wonder’s work— Innervisions and Music of My Mind—seems like the moral equivalent. Even those titles evoked the type of thing that might be possible to do alone. That was more than a little inspiring to me.”
It took that long, though, for Meyer to get past the dream and actually get to work. Because of the irregular hours required by this sort of project, it would be impossible to tie Edgar Meyer to the tick of a studio clock. The first step, then, was to build a music room at his home in Nashville—a sunny, high-ceilinged space with vibrant natural acoustics. Once the room was ready, Meyer added a last essential element: a new German Steinway grand piano. And then the real work began.
For the next year or so, between other sessions or during down time off the road, the pieces of Edgar Meyer fell into place. Recorded without a click track to keep the feel of an ensemble performing in real time, with the piano or guitar always in play to keep pitches from drifting, each piece took shape in its own way; some, like the metrically intricate “Roundabout,” were as written in advance to one or another degree. On the other end of the scale are such pieces as “The Low Road,” whose simplicity switches the focus to the beauty in the bass’s sound. And others grew organically, such as “Don’t Feed the Bear;” its seven meticulously layered mandolin parts, recorded note by note, unexpectedly took on the qualities of a hammered dulcimer.
The sometimes untraditional mixes, like the music itself, fit into the mission of making Edgar Meyer a reflection of this artist’s strengths and, relatively speaking, weaknesses. “The bass, almost inevitably, became the main character, because that’s where my real voice is,” he says. “I generally play with people who are so accomplished that I don’t really feel the urge to ask them to get out of the way so I can feature the bass—although they do give me some room because they’re all courteous. But when I’m playing the mandolin, I definitely want to tuck it over to the side.”
Yet even though this means the mandolin part isn’t going to stack up to Meyer’s bass performance, that isn’t the point. “Each instrument was equally hard to play because I would find parts that challenged me the right amount,” Meyer explains. “So the bass part was exactly as challenging as the mandolin part. Even the most accomplished musician is a complicated fabric of strong and weak areas. There is no perfect musician.”
That is, in the end, the lesson of Edgar Meyer. This album does, in fact, embrace the “flaws,” if you will, as well as the miracles of his musicianship. And, to prove the Zen masters right, that leaves us with a portrait that’s more enlightening than perfection itself.
This is one of a series of Strings’ 20th anniversary articles showcasing the people and trends that have emerged in the string world during the past two decades.