Thanks to a fortuitous “goat rodeo,” Sony Masterworks released The Goat Rodeo Sessions, a landmark album project by four of the great instrumentalists in music today, on Tuesday, October 25, 2011. The album uniquely showcases cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Stuart Duncan. While each musician is a renowned superstar in his own music sphere, they have come together now as a unified ensemble on a most remarkable and organic cross-genre project stemming from their friendship, and the title concept. The album also includes two vocal tracks featuring Thile and guest artist Aoife O’Donovan, the lead vocalist and writer for progressive bluegrass group Crooked Still.
A goat rodeo, according to Urban Dictionary, “is about 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.” Meyer first heard it used by his longtime music copyist in reference, he recalls, to “a very chaotic situation where a lot of agendas are kind of confused, and it’s hard to tell up from down.”
Relating it to The Goat Rodeo Sessions participants, all four lead extremely demanding if not chaotic lives in terms of scheduling, at least, making their meeting here, while much desired, still a near goat-rodeo miracle. But “goat rodeo” proved a perfect catch-all, too, in describing the otherwise hard-to-define nature of the quartet’s music.
While everyone personalized their own definition of “goat rodeo” Yo-Yo Ma sums it up: “In the end, what we’re trying to do is simply make music that transcends whatever roots or categories or backgrounds that it starts from–that just exists as something that we’re trying to express, through our community of values, as a moment in time creating very special music.”
“The song arrangements are goat rodeos,” says Thile, the young lion of the bluegrass mandolin, whose playing has fueled the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek and his current group Punch Brothers, and who collaborated with his multi-music genre hero Meyer on the 2008 album Edgar Meyer And Chris Thile. Adds Meyer, “We get a lot of pleasure in arrangements that have just enough twists and turns that you really can’t let your guard down, like each little thing has to go right: If I trip on one thing, that’s going to throw Chris, and then that’s going to throw Yo-Yo, and then Stuart’s going to have to make up a whole new part, because he’s not going to know where we are from what just happened!” Ma adds, “The mix of four people together could really be dicey. But you’re building trust in a fabulous way through actually having lots of fun, and also supporting each other. To me, that’s the goat rodeo.”
The end result is music that is indefinable, exciting and eclectic.
The first single “Atta Boy” is a great example of the group’s dexterity memorably likened by Duncan to “a snowstorm of information” in its Irish medley of early jig music and reels in increasingly complicated dynamic changes and time signatures. On the slower side, the beautiful ballad “Helping Hand,” features Duncan on mandolin and Thile on guitar; for his part, Meyer gets to show off his piano prowess on “Franz And The Eagle.”
In addition to playing multiple instruments, Thile also sings on Goat Rodeo’s two vocal songs, “No One But You” and “Here And Heaven.” He is joined on both by Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still), who wrote “Lay My Burden Down” on Alison Krauss & Union Station’s acclaimed Paper Airplane. Aoife O’Donovan (her first name is pronounced ee-fa) co-wrote “Here And Heaven” with Meyer, Thile and Duncan; the song is further marked by breathtaking instrumental flexibility in Duncan’s switch from fretless banjo to fiddle, Thile’s trade-off from gamba (a Renaissance stringed instrument) to mandolin and Meyer’s exchange of gamba for bass.
The Goat Rodeo Sessions was achieved via a remarkable series of magical recording sessions where the distinguished soloists somehow came together in forming a very real band.
The four virtuosos actually sat together in a circle, facing each other in order to play with and off each other. No one was isolated in a separate recording booth or room, and there was no overdubbing, just precision playing by all and at all times.
But each player brought his own unique approach to the sessions. The classically-trained Ma, who doesn’t improvise, played as if he did, while Duncan, who co-wrote the music with Meyer and Thile, worked off his own hand-notated notebook paper. Meyer likewise read from his own handwritten score, moving seamlessly from the structured page to improvisation as he moved the sheets around with his foot. Improvisational genius Thile, however, needed no musical text, but played perfectly from memory.
The Goat Rodeo Sessions came about through friendship. Ma and Meyer have been great friends and great collaborators for a number of years, as have Meyer and Thile, Thile and Duncan, and Thile, Duncan and Meyer. A number of years ago, Meyer suggested that Ma work with Thile, and the three of them collaborated on tracks for Ma’s Songs of Joy & Peace. Following a long day of recording, they went out for sushi and talked about how much they wanted to work together again. A few years later Meyer and Thile wrote to say they’d found the perfect musician to complete their quartet – Stuart Duncan. Thus the goat rodeo was born.
“Edgar made a good point that the four of us are here because each of us enjoys hearing the other three do what they do best,” Thile says, “and these are the people that we want to hear! And the music was composed with that in mind – maintaining what’s special about the individual voices and trying to find something new as a group, within that context.”
The finished Goat Rodeo Sessions is something so musically new that the title works perfectly on one more significant level.
“We want the freedom to not have the music immediately defined by a couple of words,” explains Meyer. “But at its root, Yo-Yo’s going for the same thing that Stuart’s going for, that Chris is going for–which is to completely internalize the music, and to play it without any kind of exterior references or even knowing what it is we’re going for, but with an easy agreement among the four of us in knowing when we get there.”
Concludes Thile: “The Goat Rodeo Sessions just sort of sums it up.”
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