Classic Americana Albums: Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Myer and Mark O’Connor “Appalachian Journey” (Sony Music, 2000)

Collaborations with classical artists are often an uneasy fit, a cue for an unholy alliance of partners.  Non-classical artists bask in the status and virtuosity of the conservatoire sorts, while the orchestral players demonstrate they are adaptable and groovy.  However, when it works it can provide luminous, unforgettable music.  This recording is a classic because it does that.  The world would be a diminished place without this meeting of musical minds and its gorgeous moments.

The album is based around the trio of Edgar Meyer on bass, Mark O’Connor on fiddle and YoYo Ma on cello.  All illustrious musicians in the classical tradition, they came together in 1993 to record “Appalachian Waltz”.  The album was recorded in 3 days and featured versions of jigs, reels and traditional music.

“Appalachian Journey” follows the same template, but the trio spent 3 months composing and arranging the pieces prior to recording.  The album again plays tribute to the jigs and reels of the regions, starting with the opening number `1B’.  Unlike many classical artists venturing into this territory this music sounds like bouncing, sidestepping music you could move to, and finishes with a guillotine stop.  Similar pieces `Limerock` and `Emily’s Reel’ keep pushing that pulsing, infectious skirling sound.  `Misty Moonlight Waltz’ sounds like blissful exhaustion at the end of a night of dancing.

`Indecision’ takes the reel and deconstructs it; reducing it at one point to a staccato bassline circled by the other instruments.  It’s the aural embodiment of frustration, shoulder shrugging and introspection.  `Duet for Cello and Bass’ and `Poem for Carlito’ are thoughtful and subdued. These pieces don’t quite fit the Appalachian theme of the album, but they are rewarding enough to warrant repeated listens.

However, it’s in the recordings with James Taylor and Alison Krauss that the record takes wing.  Taylor sings and plays on a version of Stephen Foster’s `Hard Times’ with the trio’s backing.  It’s possible to imagine a conventional Americana album featuring string backing, but hard to envisage anything close to the arrangement and effortless expression of the playing here.  The instrumental bridge rises swells and falls; the “…sign of the weary” referred to in the song.  Taylor also features on one of his own pieces; the sweet whistled tune of `Benjamin’.  Krauss sings on another Stephen Foster tune `Slumber my Darling’ with that controlled, pure voice complementing the string backing; she also plays fiddle on `Fisher’s Hornpipe’.

The album led YoYo Ma on to similar collaborations including The Goat Rodeo Sessions” and the recent “Not Our First Goat Rodeo Session”; hopefully a sign of dissolving musical boundaries.  As Ma’s website puts it “Music…helps turn “us” into “them” “.  There is no them and us, just different ways of listening.

`Appalachian Journey` may take some AUK readers away from the familiar, but it is a trip that will reward with new views, good company and a fresh take on the genre.  Most importantly, it’s a journey you can take again and again and again.

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Martin Johnson

Great choice and it showed how truly creative the newgrass movement could be, mixing genuine musical virtuosity with taste and feeling rather than mere grandstanding.


I agree with your sentiment regarding the combination of classical musicians with popular musicians, it rarely comes off well, but I think these guys have cracked it, just as the Fall did during their collaborations with Michael Clark Ballet Company at Saddlers Wells, back in the 80’s.