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Versatile bassist Edgar Meyer does it all himself

On genre-defying new album he plays 10 different instruments
/ Source: The Associated Press

Edgar Meyer has recorded with Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, James Taylor, fiddler Mark O'Connor, banjo player Bela Fleck, among many others.

Now he has recorded by himself, cutting a CD of 14 pieces he composed. Through the manipulations of multitrack recording, he performs on 10 different instruments — three kinds of basses, two types of mandolins plus piano, guitar, banjo, dobro and gamba.

It's a collection that combines classical, jazz, bluegrass, gospel and rock. The eclectic album, titled "Edgar Meyer," is being released by Sony Classical on Tuesday.

Meyer, 45, is a bassist who transcends boundaries. He was born in Oklahoma, bred in Tennessee, educated at Indiana University and now lives in Nashville. He feels as comfortable performing bluegrass with mandolin greats Sam Busch and Mike Marshall as he does performing chamber music with violinist Ida Kavafian and cellist Gary Hoffman.

In March, he played a program at Alice Tully Hall with Kavafian and Hoffman of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

At a rehearsal for that concert, the three worked on a Bach trio sonata. With his 1769 Gabrielli bass towering over him, he danced with the instrument as he played without any musical score.

He and Hoffman also rehearsed Meyer's Two Duets for Cello and Bass, one of which has tricky, Latinesque syncopation.

"I feel a little stressed about your piece," Hoffman told him before they started.

After a successful run-through, Meyer assured Hoffman: "There's actually no musical component. It's all rhythm. Your intrinsic fundamental clock is OK, reliable."

"I'm not so scared," Hoffman replied. "No problem. It's not that hard."

Meyer started on bass at age 5, taking up an instrument played by his father. He used a half-size instrument before growing into a full size within about three years.

"The bass is who I am and what I do," Meyer said during an interview after the Lincoln Center rehearsal, "but the piano has always excited me a lot."

Indeed, the piano part on his CD is not for beginning players. At the piano's frenetic moments, one can imagine Meyer's fingers flying over the keyboard of the Steinway he purchased with part of the $500,000 he received from a 2002 McArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

The album starts out with "First Things First," a mellow song introduced by the piano playing a tender melody that's eventually joined by a lamentful bass solo.

After that song, the piano jumps into jazzy riffs against fast pizzicato bass and glissandoed guitar chords. This is the dizzying introduction with irregular beats to what Meyer calls "Roundabout."

The six-minute song is a country-styled rondo in which the first theme returns several times. It interrupts a sullen bowed bass that sounds like an elephant crying as a soft guitar counterpoint underlines the sadness. Eventually, the dobro adds its own tears before the crazed first theme returns and sweeps to a frantic and sudden end.

Other songs include the twangy "Please Don't Feed the Bear," a country-jazz number called "The Low Road," and the mellow "Whatever" and "In Hindsight." On one song, "Just As I Thought," Meyer plays seven instruments — bass, piano, gamba, Collings mandolin, Collings guitar, banjo and gamba.

If you think Meyer has mastered all these instruments, listen again.

"The trick is each part is suited to whatever my ability level is on that instrument. It probably took two or three days before I actually figured out how to maximize my touch on a few things, which is a heavy-handed one being a big instrument player."

After recording one song at the studio he created at his Nashville home, he found it "unlistenable."

"I couldn't play the instruments well enough to do it. But that's the fun of this project. I say, `Well that didn't work,' so I took the same thing and I played the mandolin in one note at a time," he said.

To his surprise, that produced a pinging sound resembling a hammer dulcimer.

"So I got a complete bonus sound that was actually about how badly I did something," he said. "The thing is, you can keep working on it until it sounds good," he said. "I'm just always trying to figure out a way to make the best sound, or most beautiful music I can figure out how."