Yo-Yo Ma calls himself a "venture culturalist," and he's got the proof to back it up. He's reached out to a broad range of musicians (and Muppets) to play not just Bach and Beethoven, but also Brazilian samba, Argentine tango, jazz, songs from Sesame Street and a smorgasbord of Asian music with his Silk Road Ensemble. American roots music also figures into Ma's melting pot: He teamed up with double-bass master Edgar Meyer and fiddler Mark O'Connor 15 years ago for the gentle new-grass album Appalachian Waltz.
Ma's newest Americana adventure is called The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and Meyer is again along for the ride, but this time with two other string virtuosos: mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers) and veteran bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, who each helped him write the new album. All four players dropped by the NPR Music offices this past Halloween to play a few cuts for an overflowing and appreciative crowd.
The Goat Rodeo music fits right into Ma's mash-up aesthetic. It's grounded in bluegrass, but with touches of funk, jazz-like solos and Celtic excursions — all constructed with the rigor of serious classical music. Don't try to compartmentalize it.
"Quarter Chicken Dark" runs on Thile's chucka-chucka beat (and a few hot-dogging solos), along with Duncan's elegant bowing, plus a touch of funk in Meyer's bass-line burps. In "Attaboy," Ma makes the most of the wistful theme, which gets cycled through a sweet mandolin filigree, an Irish jig in Duncan's fiddle and storms of thunderous jamming. The set ends with "Here and Heaven," a bluegrass-style song in which Aoife O'Donovan (from Crooked Still) and Thile's voices join in harmony haunting enough to recall those old-fashioned Appalachian murder ballads.
Through it all, you may just wonder what's up with the name "Goat Rodeo." Some define it as a kind of chaotic situation on which order can't be imposed, and that's exactly how these musicians sometimes view their own hectic, music-stuffed lives. Yet to make the album, they all came together in a converted barn, sat in a circle and recorded the music without fancy isolation booths and overdubs.
And, of course, that's just how they did it here. So enjoy our own little "Goat Rodeo" session, with a lot of jokes and laughs, a broken mandolin string, a little retuning, and some terrific music that's fun, intricately built and — thankfully — impossible to pigeonhole.
- "Quarter Chicken Dark"
- "Here And Heaven"
Mito Habe-Evans, Michael Katzif, Becky Lettenberger, Claire O'Neil (cameras); edited by Michael Katzif; audio by Kevin Wait; photo by Cristina Fletes/NPR