Yo-Yo Ma is a cellist better known for his Bach than his bluegrass, but when he joined a team of string musicians to create The Goat Rodeo Sessions back in 2011, they made something truly special. The bluegrass album remains one of my favourites, not just because of the unlikely union, but also how well it worked. While Ma has plenty of chances to shine, his playing never overwhelms the stellar contributions of his colleagues, and the parts melt together into a melodious whole. The Goat Rodeo Sessions piqued my interest in Pencil Blues, an album by the Kye Marshall Jazz Quartet. Like Ma, Marshall has eclectic tastes, and she assembled a crack team of accomplished players. Though, compared to The Goat Rodeo Sessions, the final product isn’t quite as smooth.
Technical competence should be expected from a professional musician, but there are several fundamental issues that bothered me from the first track of Pencil Blues. Marshall’s performance in “Cello-ing” is rhythmically imprecise and drags down the piece, which is light and airy when left to the other musicians. Her tone is surprisingly ragged, with screechy moments that sound wholly out of place, particularly in faster pieces such as “Summer Sizzle,” in which her parts are nearly unlistenable. The other musicians, a mix of classical players and jazz performers, are buried under the weight of the cello’s sound and are rarely given a chance to shine, which is disappointing.
The thinner texture of the second, titular track, “Pencil Blues,” is far better, and should have started the album. The track is appropriately named; she begins the song by tapping her cello strings with the end of a pencil, and it works very well. The unconventional, lighter sound melds wonderfully with the double bass, right up until she resumes bowing.
Another general criticism is that her playing doesn’t integrate well with what the rest of the group is playing. The album is not billed as a solo album, but it often sounds like one. Andrew Scott’s guitar never rises above a whispered groove to give an equal response to Marshall’s playing. The musical ideas don’t bounce and build on each other—they just leap from one to the next. “I remember Johann Sebastian,” a play on Bach’s famous Cello Suite in G (and probably Yo-Yo Ma’s best-known recording) is a prime example of this. Marshall begins as the Cello Suite does, with the arpeggiated chords, but after a minute and a half, it moves to a variation of “I Remember April.” The whole exercise reminded me of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” which I still believe would be better without the piano coda (I look forward to your letters).
The last track, “Interrupted Conversations,” sounds more integrated, and its relaxed pace suits the wandering nature of Marshall’s playing.
My old music history teacher said that, as an airplane passenger, he would will the plane to stay in the air, believing it would help. I do the same thing during live performances, even more so if I know the piece. I tried it with this album, but for me, it never got off the ground. Two out of five.