Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Joshua Bell – At Home With Friends

Hey there…

There has always been something haunting and ethereal about a well-played violin for me. And Joshua Bell has to be among the most talented violinists I’ve heard playing today. Though I don’t normally listen to classical music these days, Bell’s album At Home With Friends caught my attention because of who Bell was playing with – Chris Botti (talented trumpet player for jazz and pop music), Sting (amazing solo artist and lead singer of The Police), Josh Groban (amazing voice), Kristin Chenoweth (talented actress with a beatuiful voice), and many others…

Evidently Bell has been holding ‘musical soirées’ at his New York residence for a while now, inviting over musicians, actors, comics, writers, and anyone else interested in sharing their talents with friends. According to Bell, the inspiration for these gatherings came from growing up in a home where such gatherings were commonplace. My own family did something very similar as I was growing up, and even today we still try to play together when possible.

Bell and his friends cover quite a wide array of musical styles – from classical to pop, bluegrass to Broadway, jazz to ethnic. I always find it interesting to hear musicians cross genre boundaries in this way. There’s a spark that occurs when such boundaries are crossed that always has the potential to create inspiration and beauty.

That said, I have to admit that my favorite tracks are those that take Bell and his companions away from the realm of the classical and into the realm of Broadway and the Beatles.

Kristen Chenoweth’s sublime voice, accompanied by piano and Bell’s violin, makes “My Funny Valentine” absolutely come alive. Bell’s strings bring across the emotion of the history of this song. And listening to Chenoweth I couldn’t help but think she would be perfect for the role of Christine Daae in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera. (She’ll also be gracing the television screen with her beauty and talent in an upcoming episode of Glee on FOX.)

My other favorite on the album is “Eleanor Rigby“, pairing Bell, a piano, and Frankie Moreno’s emotive, masculine voice. What surprised me was Bell’s interpretation of the song – providing a beautiful introduction before Moreno’s vibrato kicks in for the vocal parts. And then it builds… Changing speed and intensity, never losing the feel of the original while giving it a new spin. Listening to streaming music on the Frankie Moreno Band’s website has given me one more artist I may have to take a longer listen to.

If you are looking for something a bit different to add to your classical collection, Joshua Bell’s At Home With Friends might be right up your alley. The whole album is full of talented musicians and singers and Bell’s virtuoso violin skills. Be sure to give it a listen when it is released on September 29, 2009!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other albums at Amazon below!

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