The backroads to a rich American blend

Review: With strains of bluegrass, Celtic music and pop, `Appalachian Journey' blissfully ignores any line between popular and classical sounds.

Album review

March 21, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

You won't read about it in Rolling Stone or Spin, but there's a new musical genre taking shape in the United States today. It draws from sources more far-flung than the rap/rock fusion of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, and it boasts a sound more radical and revolutionary than breathless breakbeats of drum 'n' bass.

This style is so new, in fact, it doesn't even have a name.

But it does have its champions, and chief among them are Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor, the trio responsible for "Appalachian Journey" (Sony Classical 66782, arriving in stores today).

Mixing the melodic heritage of bluegrass, Celtic folk music and American popular songs with the structural discipline and technical demands of chamber music, "Appalachian Journey" -- which also features cameos by James Taylor and Alison Krauss -- makes the very notion of boundaries between classical and popular music seem laughable.

Given the background of these musicians, it's easy to understand how they could ignore the usual stylistic pigeonholes. Violinist O'Connor is a classically trained Nashville stalwart, equally at home with playing Paganini, jamming with jazzmen, or slipping some hoedown fiddle into country single. Bassist Meyer is just as well-rounded, having played jazz, blues and bluegrass as well as chamber music; he's also an accomplished composer, having recently written a violin concerto for Baltimore-born virtuoso Hilary Hahn.

Cellist Ma doesn't have quite the pop experience the other two have, but he's no slave to the traditional classical repertoire, having recorded a collection of Argentine tangos and collaborated on another disc with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin.

But it was the acclaimed 1996 album "Appalachia Waltz" -- his first session with Meyer and O'Connor -- that set the stage for what might be called the Neo-Americana revolution.

As with its predecessor, "Appalachian Journey" takes a winding path down the backroads and byways of American music. There are reels and hornpipes, ballads and waltzes, songs from the Celtic tradition, from the Stephen Foster songbook, and from the pens of Meyer and O'Connor. There are improvised solos and carefully scored ensemble passages, walking basslines, bluesy violin flourishes and breathlessly bowed cello countermelodies.

Some selections, such as Meyer's bluesy, oblique "Indecision," defy categorization; others, such as the James Taylor tune "Benjamin," are as obvious as any pop hit. But the album's best moments tend to be those that take the listener by surprise, as when "Fisher's Hornpipe" (performed with Krauss) moves from string band simplicity to the complicated interplay of chamber music.

In the end, though, it hardly matters whether "Appalachian Journey" is a classical album that thinks like a pop release or a pop album that plays like a classical release.

It simply sounds great and should offer something of interest to almost any music fan.

`Appalachian Journey'

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

(Sony Classical 66782)

****

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