B(l)ending the Classics 

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor

Appalachian Journey

Sony Classical

Though it's easy to associate classical music with strings, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and violinist Mark O'Connor go a step further, spanning the chasm to blend string band music and classical training with the creative instincts of imaginations too long lingering in the smoky back roads of acoustical Appalachia. The resulting fusion? Sails of jazz and a folk rudder tacking toward a classical port.

Edgar Meyer's catalytic compositions are always imaginatively stimulating, stretching the limitations of the voice of the stand-up bass, treating it like a lead instrument, navigating melodious journeys borne out of attitude and seasoned with funk and humor. "Indecision" turns the bass into an animated character evoking its own context, while the "Duet for Cello and Bass" surprises at every turn, veering away from any preconceptions about the instruments and lurching into a percussive and piercing dialogue.

The traditional duet "Limerock" pits Ma's cello up against the glissading bow work of O'Connor's violin. Perhaps no fiddler since Vassar Clements has found such depth and texture, the ability to both sear and soar across the fretless stringboard, transposing a linear, mathematical genre onto a curved canvas of infinite impressionism. His longer compositions, notably "Poem for Carlita" and "Vistas," are adventures in themselves, encompassing the intricacy and evolution of a novel played out on the twelve entangled strings of the trio.

O'Connor and Meyer, separately and together, have collaborated with everyone from Joshua Bell, Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush to the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and even Garrison Keillor. They don't need Ma to give them classical credibility, but he clearly steers them toward a bedrock foundation they are often too quick to abandon on their own.

James Taylor's vocal on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" is something of an intrusion, while Alison Krauss' vocal offering, Foster's "Slumber My Darling," is a seamless and elegant step, pairing her pure soprano lines with the bowed backing of the string trio. Taylor's own instrumental, "Benjamin," is slightly watered down "poppalachia," and although Krauss' violin cameo starts out as a standard run-through of "Fisher's Hornpipe," the tune turns into a barrier-bending flirtation that finds Krauss as whimsical and imaginative as her cohorts.

B.B. King and Eric Clapton

Riding with the King


Thanks to the irony of MTV's Unplugged, Eric Clapton finally acknowledged that mainstream audiences were more interested in his instinctive love of traditional blues than his efforts to conform to pop sensibilities. Among the yield is the newly released album with B.B. King, culling the likes of Big Bill Broonzy, Big Maceo Merriweather, Charlie Sexton, Issac Hayes, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen as well as a handful of King classics.

Although Riding with the King is their first studio effort together, King and Clapton have been onstage collaborators for over 30 years, carrying the mantle of the blues to several generations of listeners. The Clapton-produced project keeps King at the forefront, and when King steps into the title track with a spoken line declaring, "I stepped out of Mississippi when I was ten years old with a suit cut sharp as a razor and a heart made of gold," there is no doubt that we are in good hands. King also brings out the best in Clapton, who hasn't sounded this good since his days touring with Muddy Waters.

The lost treasure on the album is the inclusion of two acoustic cuts, offering listeners the first chance to hear King playing old style blues on an acoustic guitar. The reinterpretation of "Key to the Highway" came out of Clapton's inclination toward an unplugged session with the King, noting, "no one's ever heard B.B. play acoustic guitar." The back porch rendition of "Worried Life Blues" returns the song to the dusty roads of its origins, catching Clapton and King in an ageless incarnation as a couple of delta blueshands.

Some of the rawest and freshest guitar interplay comes on old King classics like "Three O'Clock Blues," with Clapton yielding to King's seasoned leads on old Lucille, "Help the Poor," trading verses and throwing lead licks at each other and "When My Heart Beats Like a Hammer," an extended backroom jam guaranteed to fill your room with the smoky atmospherics of these master bluesmen.

Neither musician has ever stood on his laurels, and a handful of new songs highlight their ability to reinvigorate the music of the day, but it is the revisiting of a rich legacy that makes this blues summit irresistible.


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