November 26, 2011
One of the best selling classical album right now isn’t actually so classical. “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” (Sony Classical) has the gentle kick of blue grass. In fact, it’s topped the Billboard charts for both classical and blue grass.
No matter from what stylistic perspective you look at it though, it’s fine music, beautifully performed and recorded. What else would you expect from Yo-Yo Ma?
“Goat Rodeo” is the latest in the cellist’s ever expanding embrace of the wide musical universe. While continuing to play concertos with great orchestras around the world, his numerous side projects have taken him on the Silk Road of the orient, to Brazil and Hollywood among other musical outposts.
What seems to direct Ma’s musical path is the desire for new collaborators and that’s the case with the latest CD. He’s joined by three other string players, primarily from the realm of American roots music. The blue grass style is the home turf of the marvelous Chris Thile, who’s performed regularly at The Egg in Albany with his bands Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers. Also on the new disc is Edgar Meyer, a composer and bass player who’s about as wide-ranging as Ma. They collaborated previously with violinist Marc O’Connor on the previous hits “Appalachian Waltz” and “Appalachian Journey.” But the fiddler in the “Goat Rodeo” quartet is Stuart Duncan, a veteran of the Nashville recording scene.
There are 11 selections on “Goat Road” and they were all written specifically for the project by the team of Meyer-Thile-Duncan. According to the notes, Duncan doesn’t actually read music and Ma doesn’t improvise. Sounds like a challenge, but as Thile explains, “It was kind of easy given the boundaries we had, while also trying to make it sound like it doesn’t have any boundaries at all.”
The music may buck and bray a bit, but the “Goat Rodeo” actually takes place in a rather small pen. The addition of piano, accordion and vocals on a few tracks does add variety to the textures, yet the tracks all settle into the same consistent groove. It’s pleasant listening, but not one of Ma’s more substantial ventures.
More new classical crossover comes from pianist Christopher O’Riley and cellist Matt Haimovitz with the collection “Shuffle-Play-Listen.” They’re new in working together as a duo, but each artist has extensive experience borrowing from the pop realms. The release, on Haimovitz’s own label Oxingale, is a double CD and each disc is it’s own thematic experience.
The first disc uses short selections from Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” soundtrack as a frame for larger pieces by Janacek, Martinu, Stravinsky and Piazzolla. It’s a clever idea, placing the folk-inspired material amidst the dreamy film music. But the concept becomes a distraction. The four main works are pretty great on their own, as is the playing.
Far more successful is the second disc, an array of 12 pop songs in new arrangements by O’Riley. I’ve enjoyed his previous solo piano discs of this kind of stuff immensely and this feels like the latest installment.
I have to say though, that I like what O’Riley’s done on its own terms, because much of the material he works with — Elliott Smith? Nick Drake? — is completely alien to me. I just like how he plays and the hazy, sophisticated arrangements he comes up with. This new disc also offers some names I’ve never heard of, like Arcade Fire, Blonde Redhead and Perfect Circle.
Radiohead is another matter. I listen avidly to discs by the mega-popular British rock band. And yet when I hear O’Riley’s keyboard treatments of their music, it’s also fresh experience because I can’t identify any of the songs when he plays them. That situation changes completely with the addition of Haimovitz’s cello. Now there’s a warm, dark melody line and the material blossoms in a new way. In this regard, Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song” is a particular treat.
Joseph Dalton is the author of “Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region” and a regular contributor to the Times Union. He blogs at: http://www.hudsonsounds.org.
by JOSEPH DALTON
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