Back to Aspen, and playing with new Punch
February 4, 2011
ASPEN – For five years at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Paul Kowert studied with double bassist Edgar Meyer. Which would seem like plenty of time to absorb what the master had to teach – especially considering that Kowert also spent the summer of 2006 under Meyer’s tutelage at the Aspen Music School.
But Meyer’s duties at Curtis included just six or so visits a year, for private sessions and master classes. And Meyer had plenty of wisdom and information to impart, having become a first-rate bluegrass picker, an icon of the newgrass movement, a marvel in the classical world, and an in-demand composer to boot.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot,” Kowert said of his actual face time with Meyer. “But I always felt like I wasn’t ready when he came to Curtis. He had so much to contribute every time I saw him. Working on what he exposed me to would take longer than it took him to get back to the school.”
Kowert finished his studies at Curtis in 2009. And, in a sense, he has also graduated from the school of Meyer. Late in 2008, aged 22 and still a student at Curtis, Kowert accepted an invitation to join Punch Brothers, a quintet that can be seen as representing the next step forward in string-band music. Led by mandolinist-singer Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, the New York-based Punch Brothers blend bluegrass, classical and folk styles – much as Meyer has done in projects with banjoist Bela Fleck, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and Thile. But the Punch Brothers also take string music to places Meyer has not really ventured, especially the vocal, song-oriented realm.
On their debut album, 2008’s “Punch,” the quintet – Thile, fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjoist Noam Pickelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge and original bassist Greg Garrison – showed off their ambition with Thile’s 40-minute, four-movement suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Last year’s “Antifogmatic,” with Kowert having replaced Garrison, was more song-oriented, with all 10 tracks featuring vocals. On the instrumental side, with its rhythmic starts and stops, vocals that cross folk and pop, the album essentially creates a new language.
Kowert returns to Aspen for the Punch Brothers date, on Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Wheeler Opera House.
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“The music is very much our own, and that’s an exciting thing, to be making our own kind of music,” said the 24-year-old Kowert from his home in Brooklyn. “I wouldn’t want to be playing a music that wasn’t our own.”
Kowert’s initial attraction to the bass had more to do with social considerations than musical ones. Born into a musical family in Madison, Wis. – his mother teaches music in elementary school; his father plays organ and piano – Kowert started playing violin at 3. But at 9, when he wanted to participate in his school’s strings program, he figured he should start on a new instrument, to put him more on par with the rest of the musicians. Someone jokingly suggested the bass, which dwarfed the 9-year-old, but Kowert was game – in large part because he saw the violin as limiting him to classical music, while there seemed more social possibilities in the bass.
“I liked the idea of playing with other people, and I wasn’t doing that with violin,” he said. “The chance to play with other musicians, play with a few other people, and to play other styles of music, to play with drums – I can’t stress how much of a thrill that was. Bass was a chance to be in a more social musical environment.” At 9, Kowert was playing an electric, Fender jazz bass in a rock band, then joined the middle school jazz group.
Kowert was having big thoughts about the bass, thanks to a Milwaukee teacher, Rosemary Poetzel. “She was real open to all things on the bass,” Kowert said. “There’s an amazing amount of repertoire that is challenging to play on the bass – duos, concertos.”
That view of the instrument became more pronounced when Kowert discovered Meyer. Not only was Meyer composing music for the bass, but by working in new ways with banjo, mandolin, cello and more, he was broadening the way a young bassist could think about the instrument.
“Getting into Edgar’s music was a way to check out Bela Fleck and Sam Bush as well,” Kowert said. “And he’s also such a great composer. He’s one of the leaders of writing for these instruments in a progressive way. Definitely the most influential bass player was Edgar.”
When it came time for college, Kowert applied to several of the top music conservatories, and considers himself lucky to have been accepted to Curtis. “I didn’t think I had a chance of getting in, I’m from Wisconsin and I didn’t get out that much,” he said. In Philadelphia, he studied not only with Meyer, but also with Harold Robinson, the principal bassist of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
He supplemented his education by attending the Aspen Music School – for a half-summer in 2003, studying with Bruce Bransby, and then a full summer, in 2006, with Meyer. “It was a great place to meet other young musicians. And a great place to run,” Kowert said.
When a group of reasonably young pickers known as Punch Brothers came to him in 2008, with the offer to join the quintet, Kowert says he leaped at the chance. He was well aware of Chris Thile, and knew that the entire band had been enormously influenced by Meyer.
“I’ve been a fan of Thile’s. Thile’s in that list of people who have been most influential. I’ve been listening to him since high school,” Kowert said. “It’s definitely a reason that we all play together now, is that we’d all been listening to Thile, and through that have formed similar musical goals. He paved the way for this group to exist.
“And Edgar’s been a big influence on everyone in the band. Thile’s played with him, and Edgar’s played on so many of the progressive recordings we’ve listened to.”
Kowert continues to look for ways to push the music forward. He is a member of mandolinist Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, which also includes the young fiddler Alex Hargreaves, and next month, Kowert is scheduled to record an album with a trio featuring dulcimer and guitar. For now, though, his main focus is on Punch Brothers.
“It was simply a dream for me,” he said of joining the group. “I had all the records, seen them in concert. It was so high on my list of anything I wanted to do, because I liked the music so much. The opportunity was immense.”