Not long ago, classical string players might have sniffed sarcastically at the suggestion that bluegrass-influenced musicians could approach them in tone and technique. And the bluegrassers, in turn, would probably have scoffed that a real picker doesn’t know enough music theory to hurt their playing. Happily, such prejudices are being washed away by new waves of projects across musical idioms. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is of the best such collaborations yet.
Consider the sheer talent assembled here: Yo-Yo Ma, the most acclaimed classical cellist of his generation and one of the greatest of all time; Chris Thile, for whose mandolin artistry similar claims can be made; fiddler Stuart Duncan, a virtuoso of bluegrass and any range of old-time and country styles; and bassist Edgar Meyer, whose genius effortlessly encompasses classical, traditional and experimental acoustic music. Ma, Meyer, and Thile are not strangers, having played on several tracks of Ma’s 2008 holiday album Songs Of Joy And Peace. Duncan guested on Thile’s landmark 1994 debut Leading Off. And Meyers collaborated with Sam Bush and others on 1999’s Short Trip Home. Add the fresh, impassioned style of guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan of the alternative bluegrass band Crooked Still, and you have an audacious lineup for an adventurous project.
Granted, the listener needs a similar sense of adventure. Hard-core traditionalists will probably find the neoclassical pieces maddeningly meandering. But frequent “On The Edge” readers may be enthralled as the four instrumentalist/composers make their individual statements, then brilliantly highlight each other’s work. By turns, the music gently cascades and riotously romps. The joy and mutual respect of these great talents is evident in every measure. It’s quite a ride.
Traditional sounds often take the center ring at the Goat Rodeo Sessions. The second section of the opening track “Attaboy” is as winning a reel as ever lifted a square- or contra dance. “Hill Justice” is strong, surging, and lonesome. (One can imagine what a banjo picker like Tony Trischka, Noam Pikelny, or Greg Lizst might have added to it.) It’s a tribute to Thile and Duncan that they are not in awe of the classically-trained musicians and can play with equal tone and precision. And it’s a tribute to Ma and Meyer that they have been so sincerely inspired by the soul of traditional-style music.
There are only two vocal tracks, but both are noteworthy. Chris Thile and Aoife O’Donovan match terrifically on the riveting “Here And Heaven” and the wistful “No One But You,” with beautifully blended timbres and timing. (I, for one, would like to hear more of their duets.)
A “goat rodeo,” it seems, is a high-risk situation, like a sudden plane landing, in which every factor must come together for success—or even survival. The Goat Rodeo Sessions crew has not only landed their craft in one shining piece, they’ve made it soar. (Sony Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022, www.sonymasterworks.com.) RDS