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Communion of the Difference

Bela Fleck, of the popular Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Edgar Meyer, member of the Lincoln Center Chamber Ensemble, both Grammy winners, and very close friends, performed together at MassMoca on last Saturday night. The house was full as was the atmosphere with musical energy.

The key to understanding this duo is the stark contrast between their instruments.

It is not often that you have to think about the banjo as a stringed instrument, but in this case under Fleck’s fingers, the banjo reveals its identity because it has to fulfill its role as the instrument that plays with the contrabass, which, in Meyer’s hands, assumes the grandeur that a bass does in the orchestra. The two men are brilliant musicians. The love that they have for doing what they do imparts itself through the music to the audience with unmistakable ease.

The tautness of the playing was especially noticeable because no miking of the instruments expanded or distorted the sound. So what came across was a true acoustic delivery. This exaggerated the difference between the timbre of the instruments, which is the beauty of the duo. It is difficult to at first resolve the simultaneity of the music from the two instruments because the sound does not blend except in instances of similar pitch strokes. Rather what is struck is a parlance between the two on many dynamic levels. The sonic range that arises from the two was limited for a distinct purpose.

Fleck’s picking of the banjo is beyond comparison .The banjo floats in a continuous line over the bowed bass line. Meyer’s bowing of the bass seems to be a comfortable means to play as well as a means to produce glorious sound. And when Meyer did not bow the bass, he was plucking. Strangely, Meyer’s right hand that did the pizzing did not move except for a couple of times when his hands came together towards the bridge. Fleck sometimes picked out on the banjo what could be interpreted as being played on another instrument like the violin or the piano. Fleck approached his instrument with an effortless seriousness that provided a classical twist to coincide with the kind of seriousness that Meyer manifested. Meyer’s oneness with his instrument imposed a not unattractive heavy character on the music that Fleck counteracted with lightness and continuity that never waned.

This music’s focus is the fingering. The art of fingering was more evident in this music than in any other instrumental combination that I can think of. It is unimaginable how many notes the banjo sings in between the bass pizzicatos ---but those notes are quite real, especially when Fleck is making them. For Fleck, the fingering is contained, complex, tight, and dryly expressive. For Meyer, the fingering is graceful, elegant, also contained, but in a way that explodes the deep resonance of the thick, heavy strings of his 18th century contrabass.

The pieces that they played were born from jazz, and bluegrass, often groovy and then... quietly and beautifully classical. The pieces which they composed themselves were dense with a music for which there is no name...because the schools they come from had a chance to unite and flourish. When Meyer played piano, he never overpowered the banjo. In fact, he never overpowered the banjo when he played the bass. Sometimes, the bass became just a big fiddle.... It was all quite remarkable.

The two musicians sometimes played in a call and response mode and then would launch off into charging ostinatos where the plucking of strings merged-- to translate into a trancelike listening experience. Few times did they go off in their own directions as would be the case in totally improvised music. They remained intimately involved at every point and the music that emanated had a larger impact than ever could be expected.

That they are involved with a "fusion" idea is a misnomer. The color of the two instruments always keeps them separate. And it is for this reason that the music they make together is strikingly particular to them, and them, alone.

The Fleck/Meyer duo concerts have been recorded and will be released on Sony classical in April.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Unknown
  • Concert Date: 2/28/2004
  • Subtitle: Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer
  • Venue: MASSMoCA
  • City State Country: North Adams, MA
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