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No string fling

Stewart Oksenhorn

The Wheeler Opera House has had many memorable nights of acoustic string music in its century-plus existence. Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Del McCoury, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett have all unplugged for Wheeler audiences.But for a genuinely historic acoustic happening, the Wheeler must give way to a lesser stage: the informal patio space outside the long-gone Hagen-Dazs ice cream parlor, just across the street from the elegant opera house.Edgar Meyers memory of the first night he met Bla Fleck is fuzzy in the details. He knows it was in Aspen, in the summer of 1982, when the two were participating in the Pitkin County Fair Meyer in a competition, Fleck as a performer with his groundbreaking string band New Grass Revival. Meyer recalls jamming on his double bass, as was his nightly habit, with guitarist Les Johnson outside the old Hagen-Dazs. He remembers Fleck strolling up with his banjo. From there the specifics get lost. But more important and lasting to Meyer is the overall impression that meeting has had on his music and his life.My memory is less of music and more of hitting it off, said Meyer, the 43-year-old widely conceded as the finest classical bassist ever not to mention a top composer and first-call bluegrass and country bassist. We became great buddies. It was more substantial than clicking. There were certain aspects of it that made gigantic sense. The connection was musical, but personal too. Fleck likewise considered the finest practitioner ever on his instrument, the banjo has a slightly clearer recall of the events. Everybody was talking about [Edgar] because he had won the fiddle contest on the bass, said the 45-year-old Fleck. Fleck remembers not just picking in front of Hagen-Dazs and thinking he had made a friend and musical partner for life, but also ending up at the home of local musician Sandy Munro, where the jam continued with Meyer on piano.In any version, it was a momentous occasion, even to those who just happened to witness the meeting of string wizards. Even back then, it was like watching aliens communicate, said Aspen musician Dan Sadowsky, who was at Munros that night. It was phenomenal to experience.Playing on the edgeWhat has transpired between Meyer and Fleck has only become more phenomenal. Since their first formal projects together Edgars guest appearance on Flecks 1983 album Double Time, then Fleck rounding up dobroist Jerry Douglas and fiddler Mark OConnor for Meyers 1985 debut, Unfolding the two have doublehandedly expanded the bounds of acoustic music. In 1988, Meyer and Fleck teamed with Douglas, OConnor and mandolinist Sam Bush to form the supergroup Strength in Numbers, which built on the eclecticism of Fleck and Bushs New Grass Revival. Meyer contributed to three groundbreaking Fleck acoustic albums, beginning with 1988s Drive. In 1997, the two joined mandolinist Mike Marshall in recording Uncommon Ritual, which inventively blended folk, bluegrass and classical sounds. In 2001, Fleck recorded Perpetual Motion, an album of Bach, Paganini and other classical pieces played on banjo, with Meyer as producer and arranger. Last year the two premiered their Double Concerto for Bass and Banjo with the Nashville Symphony, a piece they hope to record and tour with in the near future.The most recent product of this unique partnership is Music for Two, featuring live duo recordings of original compositions, works by Bach and Eccles, and Miles Davis Solar. It is the highest expression yet of what can be achieved with the bass, banjo and two advanced musical minds challenging each other rhythmically, compositionally and in virtuosity. The CD comes with a 40-minute DVD, Obstinato: Making Music for Two directed by Sascha Paladino, Flecks younger brother that captures the two onstage and off during their intense, sometimes contentious, tour in the fall of 2003.The duos current tour brings them back to where it all began. Fleck and Meyer, who make a habit of bringing their various projects to Aspen, perform in an Aspen Music Festival presentation on Thursday, May 27, at Harris Hall. (Meyer returns to the Music Festival this summer, performing his own Bass Concerto on July 30, with the Aspen Chamber Symphony and conductor Michael Stern.)The music on Music for Two is thrilling like a high-wire act. It has, for the most part, the structure and tone of classical music. But there is also a groove and a looseness, even a daring that is foreign to the classical genre. It is as if, onstage and very much in the moment, Meyer and Fleck are pushing their instruments to the very limits of what is capable. Audiences can be heard applauding after midcompostion passages, rather than politely waiting until the piece is finished.Nothing sounds inevitable even whether a piece will actually be finished without what is known in the business as a train wreck. In a performance several years ago at the Bayer-Benedict Music Tent, Flecks fingers collapsed in the last measures of a Paganini piece, which only served to underscore how difficult it was to even attempt such a feat. And on the Obstinato DVD, the story has a dramatic arc in following whether the two can pull off a Meyer composition. (At least once, in front of an audience, they fail.)We feel free to make a few mistakes, said Meyer. And the audience generally embraces that. They see that its real. This setting enables me to make some mistakes without feeling Im going to destroy the whole setting. Thats very liberating and very nice.Beyond bandmatesWhile the Music for Two CD represents the end product of a most dynamic duo, the Obstinato DVD pulls back the curtain to reveal how the partnership works. Sometimes its not pretty. Attempting to nail musical passages so complex that they cannot be put into words can be a trying experience. Not rock n roll-style, smash the hotel room to bits trying. But Fleck and Meyer do vent their frustrations on each other. (Both say that the tour captured on DVD was easily the most tense time the two have experienced together.)But most of what is revealed is the way these two titans challenge themselves, each other and music itself. Look through the tension and you see a duo in near-perfect musical communion. The two are good enough friends that the butting of heads is put to good artistic use.Hes the only guy who will bust my chops in that way. I love it, said Fleck. In the Flecktones the electric jazz-fusion quartet that occupies most of Flecks time we get along in a smooth way. The music happens almost by itself. And I love that its relaxed and happy and you dont have to think about the music all day. You just get up there.This stuff with Edgar is so different. We have to actually battle it out. If I walk in with something thats pretty much working and pretty much done, thats very bothersome to Edgar. He likes to put himself in it.At a simplistic level, Meyer, a former student at the Aspen Music Festival and a member of the esteemed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, is more the formal, trained talent of the two. Fleck calls him the kind of guy who could look at a piece of music on paper and say, OK, you could do boom, boom and boom. Which I couldnt do.Fleck named, ironically, for composer Bla Bartk calls himself more of an intuitive musician. And, owing to his greater experience with rhythm-based music in the Flecktones, more of a groove player.I think Im more comfortable with certain rhythmic things, getting into grooves, he said. I have a tendency to lock in and create a gridlock thing. Edgar has a little trouble with that. Hes more into the classical thing, where its more flexible and its not so much in a groove. I think we both have things the other doesnt. Thats the strength of the partnership.But perhaps the teams greatest feat is the melding of two minds into one. Meyer and Fleck live a 10-minute drive from each other in Nashville, and spend good amounts of time together even when not working. Since they met, not a year has gone by without some collaboration on a project; Meyer estimates that Fleck has looked over my shoulder on 80 or 90 percent of everything Ive ever done. Over the two decades of pushing each other, a duo personality has been created where strengths, weaknesses and who contributes what have blurred. As time passes, its harder and harder to break it down, said Meyer. There are times when one of us fills in something that 20 years ago would have been the others domain. Theres no place either one of us doesnt go, or stays in all the time. And thats the way we want it.One of the most frustrating things is having a relationship where people try to pigeonhole you. Weve progressed to a point where we dont do that to each other automatically.Fleck, too, says the music they make is the product of two visions becoming one.We manage to get both of our personalities so much into it, he said.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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