Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer

Not what you probably expect

By Naila Francis

When banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck and acclaimed bassist and composer Edgar Meyer teamed up to create an album of classical music, Fleck relied on the composer whose music is steeped in the classical tradition to help him choose the repertoire.

And although Meyer admits the two had to forgo several romantic pieces because their instruments simply wouldn’t accommodate them, he jokes it was never a matter of choosing songs that would fit the banjo.

“It was finding pieces that were worthy of the banjo,” he says.

The results, a melodic, imaginative journey through the works of Bach, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms and other classical icons, make “Perpetual Motion” –- the duo’s collaborative CD –- yet another project in their tradition of reinventing the sound and image of their instruments.

Today, Fleck –- sans the Flecktones, his jazz and and bluegrass fusion band –- and Meyer will perform an acoustic concert at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, showcasing some of the album’s new classical arrangements, as well as their own original works.

“Perpetual Motion,” which also features appearances by violinist Joshua Bell, guitarist John Williams, percussionist Evelyn Glennie and others, was recently nominated for a Grammy for “Best Classical Crossover Recording.”

One of the pieces –- Debussy’s “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” -– earned Fleck and Meyer a joint nomination for “Best Instrumental Arrangement.”

The two have been garnering such accolades for their innovation, together and individually, for many years.

Fleck, who already has five Grammys -– including one for “Best Contemporary Jazz Album” for last year’s “Outbound” project -– is the only musician to be nominated in the jazz, bluegrass, pop, country, spoken word, Christian, composition and world music categories.

Meyer last year shared a Grammy with violinist Mark O’Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma for their interpretation of American roots music on the album, “Appalachian Journey.”

A previous collaboration with Bell and legendary bluegrass musicians Sam Bush and Mike Marshall, 1999’s “Short Trip Home” –- a unique melding of the classical and bluegrass musical styles –- earned a Grammy nod from the Recording Academy for “Best Classical Crossover Recording.”

Meyer is the only bassist to receive the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, reserved for musicians whose achievements in classical music have been deemed outstanding.

But while some may frown or raise dubious brows at the suggestion of the banjo and the bass as purveyors of sweeping classical arrangements, Fleck and Meyer thrive on expanding their talents to the unconventional.

Both have collaborated with a variety of artists from diverse musical worlds, including Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, the Dave Matthews Band, Lyle Lovett and the Grateful Dead.

“We play instruments that are easily stereotyped and pigeon-holed into pre-existing roles,” says Meyer. “Both of us do not like to be stuck in those roles. We have a natural curiosity to find out what’s possible on these instruments, to really create a credible voice on our instruments that’s not a novelty. We rarely assume that they have to be played a certain way.”

“Perpetual Motion,” says Meyer, is one more chapter in a dialogue that has been ongoing since he met Fleck in 1981.

Although Fleck, who was named after the classical musician Bela Bartok, had already been exposed to classical music growing up in a household where his stepfather was a cellist, it was not until he met Meyer that his interest in the format was renewed.

“When I was a kid, my stepfather would have people over to play quarters on a Sunday afternoon,” the New York City native recalls. “The music would always stay in my head. Years later, when I met Edgar after playing the banjo for almost 15 years, I could just imagine that there was a role for the banjo in that world.”

Meyer grew up in a musical family, too.

His father, also named Edgar, was a self-taught bassist who toured the South with several jazz bands before becoming director of the strings program in the local public schools in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Edgar Sr. started his son on the bass when he was 5. Although his father had an impressive collection of jazz recordings, he would play classical music all day long on Sundays.

From early on, Edgar Jr. set out to straddle the lines between classical and jazz. His musical forays with the bass also extended to blues, ambient, gospel and country.

Fleck, whose initial introduction to the banjo was made while watching the “Beverly Hillbillies” on TV at his grandparents’ house, embarked on a similar career of brilliant and unexpected banjo inventions.

He began playing the banjo at 15. And by the time he met Meyer, he had made a name for himself in the country-bluegrass world.

Although the two played with several other musicians from 1986 to 1992 as the progressive bluegrass band, Strength in Numbers, Fleck carried a lingering soft spot for classical music.

He teamed up with Meyer and mandolin player Mike Marshall in the mid-‘90s to perform a series of original compositions blending bluegrass, classical and other traditional styles. The trio opened the 1997-98 season of the Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center and also recorded the acclaimed bluegrass and classical fusion album, “Uncommon Ritual.”

“Working with Bela has been a learning process over the last 20 years,” says Meyer. “The essence of our relationship has been a dialogue, and this (‘Perpetual Motion’) is just a piece of that dialogue. It’s always interesting to see his point of view. He’s always helped me with writing and clued me in a little more rhythmically.”

The educational aspect of their relationship is mutual.

“I’ve been learning from Edgar since we met,” says Fleck. “For one thing, he’s a contradiction for me. How I write -– it’s like taking a chunk of granite and chipping it to see what you get. Egar just knows what he’s doing. When he critiques my writing, he’s one of the few people I listen to.”

Although the banjo did pose some limitations to the classical pieces selected for “Perpetual Motion,” Fleck chooses the music he plays with one overriding principle in mind.

“When I find a piece that I like,” he says, “a lot of times it just works on the banjo.”

If that certain affinity takes him on a musical journey that’s not what fans expect, he has no doubt that they will follow nonetheless.

“These pieces weren’t chosen for any commerciality,” he says. “I just knew they would expand me as a musician and force me to do things I’d never done before. Some of that’s very selfish, but if I make music that satisfies me, it tends to satisfy my audience.”

–  The Intelligencer