This past Friday, Emory University’s Flora Glenn Candler Concert Series presented an engaging duo recital by esteemed acoustic bassists Edgar Meyer and Christian McBride at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The event drew a packed house.
McBride, 43, has been an important, highly visible figure in the jazz world for over two decades. Meyer, who will celebrate his 55th birthday later this month, is equally notable as a classical bassist who has spread his career outward to include a range of other genres such as jazz and bluegrass.
The duo opened the concert with “Green Slime” by American jazz woodwind player John Wallace Carter, and followed with the Rodgers and Hart standard, “My Funny Valentine.” They performed “Solar,” attributed to Miles Davis, although current consensus is that Davis appropriated it from the song “Sonny” by jazz guitarist Chuck Wayne.
A rendition of “Walk Right In,” a 1929 country-blues song by Gus Cannon — made popular by The Rooftop Singers in 1962 — rounded out the first third of the evening, demonstrating the range of stylistic ground McBride and Meyer would be covering in the intermission-less show.
As the two played, several things were quickly observable. While the two performers are musically compatible as a duo, each has his own distinct sonic personality. McBride’s sound is rounder and more present; Meyer has a more mellow and earthy character. Their instruments are also quite different. The body (or box) of Meyer’s stand-up bass is much smaller than McBride’s, but has an unusually long endpin so the overall heights of the two instruments are essentially the same.
The fact is, there has never been a truly standardized sizing system for acoustic basses, whether speaking of box size, string length, or other features of design. Some players consider 42 inches as the most common string length, from bridge to nut, but there are longer and shorter lengths in professional use (ignoring the smaller-sized instruments intended for younger students). Since a bassist’s intonation and left-hand technique develop around the specific string length of their instrument, it becomes challenging to switch instruments.
In light of that, it was interesting to listen in on a conversation between Meyer and some high school bassists after the concert — young fans gathered to get autographs — as they questioned him about his bass. In a nutshell, the string length of Meyer’s bass is 41 inches and he found that, among the basses he owns, this particular instrument is the one best suited to the kinds of concerts he performs.
Both McBride and Meyer repeatedly demonstrated their virtuosity, not only in terms of velocity and rhythmic acumen, but also in exploring the extreme upper ranges of their instruments. In most of the bass duo selections, one would play the bass line while the other would solo above it, then they would swap roles about halfway through. This pattern, however, did not permeate the entire set.
McBride and Meyer each had an unaccompanied solo, and each also had a solo where the other accompanied on piano, although neither of the piano parts were technically demanding. For example, Meyer’s piano part for “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was a mood-setting, mostly chordal affair that gently underpinned McBride’s rendition of the ballad. McBride’s turn at the piano had a little more movement to it when he accompanied Meyer, but required no overstatement from the pianist.
Other featured standards of the evening included Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” originally instrumental theme music for the film The Uninvited, but which is commonly ranked among the most popular jazz standards today. John Cale’s “Captain Hook” and Bart Howard’s standard “Fly Me to the Moon” were also heard among the evening’s fare.
Meyer’s own “Barnyard Disturbance,” which he recorded with banjoist Béla Fleck and mandolin player Mike Marshall on the 1997 album Uncommon Ritual, was the final tune of the set proper, after which the bassists left the stage. But they quickly returned for a single encore: the Miles Davis standard “All Blues.”
Readers should also make note that McBride will be performing in metro Atlanta again Saturday, at Spivey Hall, in the context of his Christian McBride Trio, which includes pianist Christian Sands and drummer Jerome Jennings.