The day after his current duo tour with Chris Thile kicked off in Vancouver, Edgar Meyer hesitates to give himself a favorable review.
"I should have played a little better," he says in a phone interview after the tour moved on to Seattle. "But the people were nice."
Such a perfectionist's appraisal perhaps befits a musician of Meyer's considerable standing. An acknowledged virtuoso of the double bass, he is recognized as one of the primary instrumentalists to discover common ground between the bluegrass and classical worlds. Such a description, though, marginalizes his artistic achievements, which include collaborations with string players Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O'Connor, and recordings that have placed himalongside Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain, acclaimed crossover cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and on a 2000 album, himself by arranging a series of Bach cello concertos for the double bass.
His collaboration with mandolinist Thile seems to be a long-term gig, however. They began playing together 15 years ago and released their second album of duets, Bass & Mandolin, earlier this month. The title cuts to the chase of their music's instrumental makeup even though it leaves the door open for exactly what stylistic direction that music will take. Meyer credits Thile, 20 years his junior and possessed with a similar bluegrass-bred dexterity and blindingly deft musicianship, for expanding the already considerable stylistic reach of their playing.
"Chris might as well be my teacher," Meyer says. "I learn from everything he does. He is a person of unique and very unusual ability. He is very thorough, and he's always looking around the corner to see what's possible. I learn from him every day. That's a lot of the fun of it."
Bass & Mandolin comes just a year after the two players engaged in a national tour as part of a multi-stylistic string ensemble called The Goat Rodeo Sessions with Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan and vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. The group, which released a self-titled album in 2011, continued a chamber-like variation of Americana music that earned Meyer a Grammy Award for the 2000 recording Appalachian Journey (with Ma and O'Connor).
"Things with Chris are very defined just by having a bass and mandolin," Meyer says. "We enjoyed the collaboration with Yo-Yo, Stuart and Aoife. So Chris and I talked about bringing a couple of elements that were more from that project, the biggest difference being some of the lyricism. I'm not sure we necessarily achieved that. I think we were still being very much ourselves."
When asked who of the two might favor such lyricism on Bass & Mandolin, the same critic who gave Meyer such a non-congratulatory appraisal for the previous night's concert re-emerges.
"Chris brings a lot of that. I don't know if my nature does."
What Meyer does experience in his duo with Thile is an expansion of the genre-free musical expression that has fortified much of his career. While the resulting instrumentation may touch on bluegrass, classical, jazz and more, the intention is never to be stylistically specific.
"This is the way music evolves," Meyer says. "Once all these different elements of music are in your brain, they don't want to stay in their own little room. They want to get in there and talk to each other. Chris and I find that type of thing to be inevitable and natural, not that there isn't value in things that are more traditionally, or otherwise, defined.
"Take bluegrass, for instance. People look at that as something sacred. The irony of that is when Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs defined bluegrass, they were mashing a lot of stuff together. So at the very moment all these things are real sacred cows, the music itself becomes fundamentally a fusion.
"I'm just pointing that out because this is a natural process. There is always tension — and you hope there is tension — between trying to hang on to certain elements and also trying to let the music move forward, recombine and redefine. If there is no tension, there is no interest."