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(Above: They aren’t the mountain chain associated with bluegrass music, but the Rockies are still an excellent backdrop for Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

One of the perks of being a cult artist is that you can count on a good portion of your audience to follow you anywhere. Barely a month ago, Chris Thile was onstage at the Uptown Theater celebrating the reunion of Nickel Creek, the influential bluegrass trio he helped found in the ’90s.

A good portion of that night’s audience likely followed Thile across town for his Kauffman Center debut on Thursday night. Acclaimed classical bass player Edgar Meyer joined Thile onstage in Helzberg Hall.

The hall was three-quarters full for the two-hour and 15-minute performance (including a 20-minute intermission.) Although the music occasionally recalled Nickel Creek’s buoyant acoustic melodies, Thile and Meyer quickly established their own identity.

The pair play a hybrid of classical, bluegrass and folk, equally at home on the couch after dinner or dressed up at a wedding.

The delicate bowed melody of “Monkey Actually” recalled banjo player Bela Fleck’s classical work. The connotation is appropriate, since both Meyer and Thile have worked with Fleck separately. Together, the pair earned a Grammy for their work with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Chris_Thile_and_Edgar_MeyerMuch of the evening focused on Thile and Meyer’s new album, “Bass and Mandolin.” The pair played all but two tracks from their second collaboration. Standouts included “Friday,” which sounded like both instruments were in a race, and the gentle “I’ll Remember for You,” which found Meyer on piano and Thile on guitar. “It’s Dark in Here” could have been a lost Rodrigo y Gabriela cut.

If albums like this had singles and radio had interest in playing anything like this, the enchanting “El Cinco Real” would be on every DJ and programmer’s desk in the country. Instead it will have to settle for a life of NPR bumper music.

The material’s musical intricacies were offset by the pair’s between-song banter and jokes. One running gag was how lazy the song titles were. After fretting that the audience might not be able to keep up with the show not knowing that “Ham and Cheese” and “Fence Post in the Front Yard” had been played, Thile casually referred to two Bach arrangements as cover songs.

One song had an intentional title. Meyer’s father introduced him to the jazz bassist Ray Brown when Meyer was a child. Later, Meyer learned that Brown once recorded a cover of “Doxie,” but unwilling to pay royalties to songwriter Sonny Rollins, Brown put a new melody on top of the same chord changes and called his number “FSR.” Meyer and Thile titled their tribute to Brown “FBR.”

After an improvised number the duo said since the piece changed every night, it should have a new title as well. They took several suggestions from the audience — “Swiss Cheese,” “Hole in My Sock,” “One Numb Toe,” “Succotash” — riffing on the ideas and sharing titles from other cities. In the end, Thile and Meyer decided they liked “Snuffleupagus” best.

After announcing the upcoming intermission, Thile joked that they had been counting people during the first half of the set and would notice if anyone snuck out.

“What Chris means,” Meyer said, “is we’re glad that each and every one of you is here.”

Setlist: Why Only One?, The Farmer and the Duck, Monkey Actually, Ham and Cheese, Friday, FRB, Canon, I’ll Remember for You, Fence Post in the Front Yard. Intermission. Tuesday, Tarnation, This is the Pig, Look What I Found, El Cinco Real, Snuffleupagus, Prelude, It’s Dark in Here. Encore: BM3.
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Above: Students at the Berklee School of Music break down the Roots’ “Water.”

By Joel Francis

The New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff participated in a very enlightening Q and A with readers yesterday. It seems Kansas City jazz fans, like our friend at Plastic Sax, aren’t the only ones obsessed about the state of the genre.

Several people asked Ratliff why jazz didn’t have a bigger audience, what the media’s responsibility is to promote jazz to a larger audience, if there is a stigma against jazz in mainstream culture and, most bluntly, whether jazz was dead.

Similarly, several readers were concerned about the legacy of today’s jazz artists. They asked which contemporary artists have the best potential to join the pantheon of innovators like Miles and Duke, and whether the current crop of players are pioneers or regurgitators. One bold reader actually called out the elephant likely hiding behind many of these questions. “Pretty much all jazz sounds the same today,” he said.

It seems that just as baseball fans can’t wait to compare Albert Pujols to Stan Musial, jazzheads love debating the merits of John Medeski to Jimmy Smith or Joshua Redman to Sonny Rollins. They (we) are forever insecure that our moment in the sun won’t measure up to the established legacy. They are right. Just as no contemporary president will be as lauded as the Founding Fathers, and no slugging outfield can surpass Babe Ruth’s mythology, there is no way that the abilities of Jaco Pastorius or Christian McBride can exceed the monumental achievements of Charlie Mingus and Ray Brown.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t all be enjoyed. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove hasn’t redefined the instrument the way Louis Armstrong did in the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but I think his playing on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” is inventive and unique. There is no comparison between the works, because they can’t be compared. They exist in different worlds. And questions about “is it jazz” are as silly and insignificant as whether or not poker or Nascar are sports. It doesn’t matter.

One of the elements I enjoy most about jazz is watching how it absorbed in reinterpreted in new contexts. One can hear the free jazz influence of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders in both the Stooges and the Soft Machine, but what they did with it was drastically different.

Ironically, “fans” might be the only ones worrying or arguing about these issues. Just as Hargrove had no problem working with Common and D’Angelo, I’m sure Ron Carter didn’t hesitate before recording with A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star. Artists make art, not distinctions.

To these ears, pieces like “Water” from the Roots’ album “Phrenology” or Mos Def’s “Modern Marvel” from “The New Danger” embody the spirit of jazz as much as anything Rudy Van Gelder recorded for Impulse or Blue Note.

Just as folk music survived the birth of the electric guitar (and Bob Dylan plugging in), and Sacred Harp has peacefully coexisted with gospel, jazz will survive. It will not be preserved in amber, but it is too indelible to be erased from American culture.

Although Ratliff’s answers were thoughtful and informative, he failed to pass along one key piece of advice to the Chicken Littles so worried about the future of their art: Pick up a horn and do it yourself.

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