Revered mandolin player Mike Marshall was gigging with the great David Grisman and a young banjo player named Bela Fleck back in the early ’80s when he first heard about Edgar Meyer, a college kid who was turning heads with his musical chops.
“Bela told me about this young bass player who was really good,” Marshall said. Meyer ended up coming to one of their shows, and jammed with some of the musicians afterward. Marshall could see right away that Fleck wasn’t understating.
“It was clear from the first moment seeing him that you were seeing something quite unusual on the bass,” Marshall said. “He was a spectacular improviser.”
Marshall walked away impressed. But what really sealed the deal was discovering the bass player’s deep classical knowledge and abilities.
“We became fast friends after that,” Marshall said.
That was the beginning of a musical partnership that has spanned more than a quarter century and produced two albums, countless hours of boundary-pushing picking and many unforgettable onstage moments.
The two musicians, who have created a deep repertoire of songs over the years, are swinging through Durango this weekend as part of a small run of Western gigs. They will play a concert at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Community Concert Hall.
Together, Meyer and Marshall create rich, intricate and technically dazzling songs through an alchemy that is one-part seasoned musicianship, one-part musical chemistry and one-part experimental ingenuity. Performing live with Meyer, Marshall said, is always a focused and deeply fulfilling affair.
“We try to find that balance between kicking our own butts and creating a lovely, relaxed experience for the audience,” Marshall said. “It’s a pressure cooker, but I love it.
The duo of Marshall and Meyer represents a melding of two great acoustic talents. Meyer is a bass virtuoso who has built a career as a spirited performer, chameleon of styles and gifted composer with a mad scientist’s approach to bending the limits. He started plucking the bass at the age of 5 and had established himself as a talent worth paying attention to by the time he was attending college at Indiana University. The 2002 MacArthur “genius” grant recipient has dabbled in everything from Bach sonatas to bluegrass jigs and has collaborated with musicians like Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma. He is fresh off of a Grammy win for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for “Bass and Mandolin,” an album he made with Chris Thile.
Marshall is a seasoned and imaginative musician who is also highly proficient on his instruments, which include mandolin, mandola, guitar and fiddle. Marshall joined the original David Grisman Quintet in 1978 and has been on the leading edge of American acoustic music since. Marshall, who like Meyer is a musician with voracious and wide-ranging tastes, has embarked on studies of classical, Brazilian and bluegrass music.
Marshall said the multi-genre love of music is a factor that keeps their partnership exciting.
“He’s one of those wide-open musicians who tends to devour everything in his past and at the same time stay true to his own voice,” Marshall said. “It’s an interesting relationship because we have so many musical points that connect.”
In the course of their relationship, Marshall commissioned Meyer to write a piece for his classical music project, they created the album “Uncommon Ritual” with Bela Fleck and they collaborated again on a crossover album with Sam Bush and Joshua Bell.
And amid the projects and tours, they made time to sit down and play as a duo.
“All the while as this was going on, he and I were developing a duo repertoire,” Marshall said. “That’s something that’s just kind of been percolating in the background all these years.”
At this point, he said, he and Meyer have everything from Brazilian songs to Texas fiddle tunes and progressive bluegrass tracks. “It’s really deep and rich. I’m really proud of it.”
The duo also has discovered that, paired together, the bass and mandolin are capable of really great things. The big low instrument and the tiny high one are able to complement each other in ways that other instruments can’t, Marshall said.
“I love this idea that we have to come up with these ways to back up one another that have never been done before,” he said. “You have to be just really open and use your imagination.”
And while Marshall is the elder of the two, he said he has learned a great deal from his younger cohort.
“Edgar has pushed the technique of bass well beyond what everyone thought was humanly possible,” Marshall said. “Also, he has an unbelievable work ethic when it comes to practicing. In that regard, he’s probably shown me as much as anybody.”