One Track Mind: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, "Attaboy" (2011)

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Recently, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, double bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin player Chris Thile got together to make an Appalachian styled string music record, and called it The Goat Rodeo Sessions.

According to the Urban Dictionary, a Goat Rodeo is “the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it.” When you combine four heavyweight talents as Ma, Duncan, Meyer and Thile, well, there’s a lot of things that gotta go right for it to work. That’s because, as the liner notes succinctly points out “virtuosity does not assure chemistry.”

Yet, these four found a common middle ground and made it work. On some songs it works pretty well, and on others, it’s magical … extraordinary. Goat Rodeo‘s lead off cut “Attaboy,” is one of those special moments. Along with the other ten tracks, this one was composed by Meyer, Thile and Duncan expressly for these sessions. As such, no solo space is given to Ma, as he’s not an improviser. That turns out to be a blessing, helping to prevent this meeting of maestros from devolving into a non-stop show-off occasion. These guys play like a real band.

As an international superstar musician from the classical field with 17 Grammys, a National Medal of Arts, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, UN Ambassador of the Arts, Avery Fisher Prize winner — you name it — all ears will be on this guy. The disappointment that might follow from finding he’s not trotted out front is quickly dissipated from the realization that the sum is greater than the sum of the gold-plated parts.

“Attaboy” accomplishes that feat with a meticulous arrangement that left no one much choice but to play for the song; to go off the script would have made it all collapse. Like a goat rodeo. Thile, formally of the alt-bluegrass troupe Nickel Creek, serves as the de facto percussionist with his strums on the mandolin, and a tonal counterweight to the bowed strings coming from everyone else. The theme opens up gently in the beginning, in a comfortable stride that extracts ideas from classical and Americana folk, but never completely residing in either camp. Regardless, the harmony is complex but sweet, and the attenuated adjustments in cadence are right up Ma’s alley. Also of note is how Ma blends in so well between Duncan’s violin and Meyer bass, and his angular, accurate style at times sounding closer to a viola than a cello. He holds down the tonal center, as well as some of the harmony parts, when Thile and later Duncan go off. Unexpectedly, the song pivots to a vigorous bluegrass middle section, where Duncan and Ma combine for some serpentine unison parts in a stirring climax, before the crew slides right back to that main theme like they never left it.

I can appreciate classical music but it’s never been a major passion of mine. At the same time, I can’t help but to concur with Yo-Yo Ma when he states: “All the different categories — bluegrass, jazz classical music, R&B, whatever — they’re really just temporary placeholders. What we’re trying to do in the end is simply make music, and to have the music transcend whatever roots or categories it starts from.”

“Attaboy” is transcendent.

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The Goat Rodeo Sessions released last October 24, from Sony Classical.

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