Edgar Meyer, Multi-Purpose Maestro Composer Edgar Meyer's self-titled CD takes advantage of his many talents. Jacki Lyden visits Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where Meyer also finds time to teach, for a conversation with a musical master.

Edgar Meyer, Multi-Purpose Maestro

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Just across town is another piece of Philadelphia history. An ornate 19th century mansion off Rittenhouse Square. To ascend the staircase is to think of ball gowns and symphonies. Every wall is richly paneled in sumptuous wood. Appropriately, this is the home of the Curtis Institute of Music.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: We climbed two flights of stairs, passing practice rooms radiating with furious bowing or vocal scales strumming, and sat down with the double bassist Edgar Meyer. At 45, Meyer has been called a virtuoso, an original, a genius. His range seems infinite, from classical to jazz to blue grass. He's at home writing for violinist Yoyo Ma or collaborating with Lyle Lovett. He's a three time Grammy Award winner and Nashville native. For the past few years, Meyer has driven up from Tennessee to teach at Curtis once a month.

We joined him in the bass room, which looks as if it was once a long narrow maid's quarters. There's a row of enormous basses one wall. And to take the edge off the seriousness of all this, pictures of trophy fish and an advertising plaque. Great stuff this bass. Get it? B A S S. Nothing about Meyer is somber. He's kinetic, 5 foot 10, husky. This Tuesday, the ultimate collaborator will release a new self-titled CD, Edgar Meyer, in which he plays every one of the instruments, 277 strings in all.

(Soundbite of music from Edgar Meyer CD)

LYDEN: The bass, though, is the star and the instrument he's loved most since boyhood.

Mr. EDGAR MEYER (Musician): From the first moment that I can remember, I had identified myself as a bass player and it had everything to do with my father, who was a bass player. And he loved music, you know, as much as anybody I've ever seen. And that dynamic I just thought as somehow was a straight pass to me. I was drawn to being like my father and also just kind of the love of music. And frankly, if you'd heard him play the violin. He use to teach elementary through high school. If you'd heard him play the violin, which was not very good, and heard him play the bass, which was pretty good, you would think that you'd want to be a bass player.

You know, he'd grown up playing jazz and then when he was older he wanted to learn to read music and to use a bow. And he was actually very embarrassed by the fact that the first time he was in an orchestra, he didn't know when to come in. He'd have to watch the other bass players to know when to play.

LYDEN: Because he couldn't read the music?

Mr. MEYER: Yes. So my father, he did not want me to suffer those embarrassments. So from age five it was about reading and about using the bow and he would play duets with me every day and make sure that I could hold my own place and wasn't getting, you know, having to wonder when to come in like he did. So overall, it's more classical music but from a young age, you know, we also played a lot of other music together and it was a very open household. In a way that actually a lot of bass players' houses are.

LYDEN: I do have to ask you though. You've got a good story, I understand, about your first bass. We can't let that go.

Mr. MEYER: Well, or the bass that I started playing when I was 11, really. That is a bass that my father heard about that some people were using as a flower planter. And it had fallen off a truck and they thought -- they just didn't bother to repair it. And so my father purchased it for 25 dollars and I played it till I was 23.

And it's, it's actually a wonderful instrument. I use it quite often.

LYDEN: As a flower plant? Or...?

Mr. MEYER: No, as a bass. It's a check bass, 1933, and like on this most recent record that I did, I used it for one pizzicato part on a song called Woody Creek. And it's a nice bass.

LYDEN: Well loved.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You take us into your music room in Nashville on this new CD, which is self-titled, Edgar Meyer. And on it you play 277 strings, I guess if you count up all the different instruments.

Mr. MEYER: Most of them are on the piano.

LYDEN: Well, and tell us what the other ones are then.

Mr. MEYER: Okay, well, there is gamba, mandolin guitar, Dobro, piano and bass and banjo. Beautiful collection of instruments. Piano I've looked for all my life and very happy with. And then I have a nice guitar. And Dan Hatches(ph) built me this beautiful gamba.

LYDEN: Because we like to be all things to all listeners, just refresh us on the gamba.

Mr. MEYER: Gamba is the pre-curser to the violin and the cello. The bass is actually a member of the gamba family. So the little gambas actually look like little basses. And the highest ones are up in the violin register. And that's, that's what was used this recording was. So if a sound that you think sounds kind of like a violin, that's the right description, kind of like a violin.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MEYER: Jerry Douglas lent me a Dobro that I stood next to for many years.

LYDEN: A roundabout, a headphone roundabout.

Mr. MEYER: Yeah, a roundabout, the Dobro comes in. And I complete, I probably owe Jerry big time for that. I actually completely stole his lick.

It's the big rake across the strings. You know, my friends come up to me and they go, You did that? You did the Jerry Douglas thing?

LYDEN: Remember, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Mr. MEYER: Oh yeah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MEYER: You know, most of this record was not written down. But for example, on a piece like Roundabout, which has a complicated piano part, I wrote that down entirely and then I practiced it for two or three weeks 'cause it's difficult. And so you know my family had to endure many hours of that.

LYDEN: Why did you decide that you wanted to make a record? I still call them records. With yourself? And tell us how you did it.

Mr. MEYER: Well, in regards to the actual process, I have a little monitor that I wheel over next to the piano and I just press record. And I could, you know, do takes for a while. And then I could stop and listen to a few of them and if liked it, I could edit a couple together and then I could listen to that, add an instrument or two or see what it needed.

In terms of inspiration, the general act of making music is often highly collaborative. You know, if you're in classical music, you're already collaborating with a composer. And also, the give and take between the musicians is often very defining. And sometimes I actually really love the idea of something that's more like a sculpture or writing a novel, where you really see something through from kind of a beginning vision all the way to a completed thing.

And I've probably always been inspired, I mean, maybe one album in particular, or one set of records was those early Stevie Wonder records where he actually self produced, those three or four records, Innervisions and Music Of My Mind. And those titles are even evocative of part of what I find attractive of this type of thing.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: For the past several years, Edgar Meyer has been teaching at Curtis along side principal bass professor Hal Robinson. Meyer has seven students who receive his individual attention. Here they're all assembled in a bass class listening to a duet.

(Soundbite of music)

Violinist Hyjin Kim(ph) plays with student Nathan Farrington.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NATHAN FARRINGTON (Curtis Music Student): I'm a fifth year student here and when I started here, he wasn't teaching. He wasn't really teaching anywhere, which everyone sort of regarded as a sort of a travesty, you know, because he was doing things on the instrument that no one else can do. But I remember the day that Hal called our studio together and called us to the bass room and he wouldn't tell us what he wanted to talk about. It seemed very strange, him calling a meeting. And the big news was that Edgar was going to start teaching and everyone just went, just went nuts.

(Soundbite of music class)

Mr. FARRINGTON: I came in with sort of fast hands and some decent musical ideas but he showed me how undisciplined my approach to the instrument was and he did it through Bach, which is his great love, you know. You know, we always ask him how did you get so good? And you know was it scales? What was it? And he played Bach slowly and he just looked at his hands during those hours of Bach, you know, and he said every technical situation that you'll ever run into in music elsewhere, you'll find it in Bach. And if you can be disciplined enough to slow down and watch yourself, and figure out exactly what all the parts of your hands are doing, you'll gain tremendously from it. And I spent a year doing that, and my hands just were transformed.

(Soundbite of music class)

LYDEN: You're really busy. I mean a lot of great artists don't necessarily take the time to teach. Why teach?

Mr. MEYER: I can tell you I'm not exactly sure why I teach. I think a lot of it is just it's the sense of community. A real desire to be involved both with people older than myself and people younger. Curtis is nice because their ties to the past are stronger than most places. In a sense it's a more conservative institution than any I can think of which actually I find very inspiring. Of course I work here with Hal Robinson who is principal bass in the Philly Orchestra. I should even say I work at the pleasure of Hal Robinson, who is really the primary teacher here. And one of the things we often love is that we don't say the same thing. Sometimes I think the student may learn more if Hal and I have a completely different viewpoint on an issue than if we agree. And Curtis has enabled a lot of that spirit.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Graciously, Meyer said he'd play something for us from his new CD. Before our interview, he warned us he was wired. Nothing, he said, loosens me up. That's not quite true. Leading him on this piece, he seemed tense for a moment but then as his fingers flew and his arms embraced the bass, he was as sinuous as a man lost in a dream. This tune is called the Low Road. Edgar Meyer's self-titled CD comes out this Tuesday. You can hear another performance, plus music from the CD on our website, NPR.org.

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