Talking to Edgar Meyer, two things stand out – his slow Tennessee drawl and his extraordinarily humble attitude. The 51-year-old double bass player has been hailed as many things: an inventive composer, a catalyst for bluegrass-classical-folk crossover and simply “the best bassist alive,” according to San Diego Magazine.
When he plays solo at Pantages Theater tonight, he’ll show why he’s won three Grammys, been commissioned by musicians such as Joshua Bell and Hilary Hahn, and made music with everyone from James Taylor to Yo-Yo Ma.
But ask Meyer about those collaborations and he’ll say playing with better musicians inspires him to learn. Ask him about his compositions and he says he just writes music he himself would like to listen to. Like his instrument – historically the most under-appreciated, least diva-ish of all the strings – Meyer is a humble guy.
Over the phone this week, he talked to The News Tribune about Bach, bluegrass and just why he plays bass:
You’ve played Seattle before, but what about Tacoma?
I’ve been in the Northwest a lot, and I played in Wintergrass some years ago.
What will you be playing tonight?
The first half is probably more formal, less improvised. It’ll definitely include some Bach – the first cello suite in G major – and a new piece of mine, it’s more composed than not, more of a hybrid. Then there’s a little more overt bluegrass and improvisation in the second half. But it’s a matter of degree. You wouldn’t be able to define it as bluegrass per se. It’s maybe 70 percent original, ranging from a piece I wrote 30 years ago to more recent ones, and a lot are tunes I’ve played with bluegrass friends in that in-between place where we spend a lot of our time.
Speaking of Bach, what’s the secret to making unaccompanied Bach sound good on a bass?
It doesn’t always sound good. But when it works, at the end of the day it’s no different from making it sound good on anything else. It’s music that’s incredibly beautiful on its own. It doesn’t need an injection of personality from the performer. One actually just tries to play the piece as well as one can ... just let it be.
In your career, you’ve become kind of a hero for the double bass – brought it into the spotlight. But is it still tough selling the idea of solo double bass?
Over the years, there have been a lot of people who have addressed the instrument outside of classical music, so the general public is used to the idea of a bass player with something to say, even more so than classical music. In jazz and bluegrass, there’s the idea that it can be an expressive instrument.
It’s been important for me to find natural roles for the instrument. More than half the time, I’m engaged with other instruments, rather than just solo. Just as important as promoting a solo voice is to have the bass’ voice be more than limited in a group. It shouldn’t be dumbed down or made simple just because it’s a bass because it’s capable of so much more than that.
You’ve played with bluegrass musicians such as Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall, with classical musicians such as Yo-Yo Ma and more. Why do you like collaborating?
(Because of) how much I learn. I feel like a kid. I’ve literally learned whole new ways to organize music and leaps of faith that I wouldn’t have expected to have in my late 40s/early 50s. As a bass player, you get to work with people who are better than you. It’s a perk of the instrument. It helps me raise my game.
Where are you going with your compositions?
At one level, they’re no different from 40 years ago: I’m expressing myself and satiating my curiosity. I’m also exploring things I haven’t explored, things that stretch me rhythmically and harmonically, but not limited to that. At the end of the day, I’m just writing music I’d like to sit down and listen to.
What other music do you listen to?
I don’t listen that much these days. I spend a lot of hours involved with music during the day, so I’m not always inclined to. Years ago, I had Bach cantatas in the car. That was a revelation. And Indian classical music. Now, my son is 19 and he listens to a lot of things – I hear a lot of stuff through him.
What are you reading right now?
I have “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace in the bathroom. And I read a lot of cookbooks.
Tell me something people might not know about you.
I’m fairly boring. But in the last five or 10 years, I’ve been getting excited about cooking – mostly fish and vegetables, not super heavy. I have this tip that Mike Marshall gave me, to throw rosemary into a grill fire and smoke it out for extra flavor.
You’ve been playing bass since you were 5. What do you like about the instrument?
Simply that it gives me a voice. It’s fulfilling.Rosemary Ponnekanti firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8568 blog.thenewstribune.com/arts