When the classical music gods were selecting artists who would have enough cachet to do whatever they wanted, thankfully one of the ones they blessed was Yo-Yo Ma.
Yes, Ma certainly has a substantial catalog of benchmark recordings of the standard cello repertoire. But his greatest contribution to modern music has been genre-blending, culture-highlighting music like his Silk Road Project and Appalachian albums with violinist Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer. Ma and Meyer are together again, this time with bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan and mandolin superstar Chris Thile for The Goat Rodeo Sessions.
The artists have been fond of highlighting the definitions of “goat rodeo” as situations where everything has to go right for things to work – i.e., this project was an artistic highwire act. Well, yes and no. Yes, genre blends can be risky – give violinist Nigel Kennedy’s unfortunate new release The Four Elements a listen, or don’t.
But here, we are talking about Ma, Meyer and Thile, who have virtually unblemished collaborative records, and Duncan, whose career in bluegrass and country has included work with Mark Knopfler, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant and has been named fiddle player of the year by the Academy of Country Music five times.
These guys are good, and they’re really good – lo, great – together.
For many listeners who come to Goat Rodeo through Ma’s classical celebrity, Duncan will be the real discovery.
He gets his own spotlight as the glue of sorts on the lead-off track on the album, Attaboy, an progressively intricate swirl of reels that lets everyone show off their instruments and their virtuosity. It’s instant affirmation that this mix will work, but it hardly sits still. Quarter Chicken Dark is a funkier expression of the quartet, and then it switches up with Duncan taking over the mandolin and Thile on Guitar for Helping Hand. The album also features Meyer on piano (Franz and the Eagle), Meyer and Thile on gamba on Here and Heaven, one of two vocal duets with Thile and Crooked Still frontwoman Aoife O’Donovan that also features Duncan on fretless banjo – yes, banjo on Sony Classical. Ma moves through the original tunes playing whatever is needed from rhythmic anchor to melodic lead.
The stylistic mix of bluegrass and classical yields a more easygoing sound than either genre on its own. The real beauty is no apparent self-consciousness that this group is creating a new mix. The Goat Rodeo Sessions simply demonstrates that great musicianship is great musicianship, regardless of the label.