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Yo-Yo Ma: Is a Jazz CD Next?

Yo-Yo Ma is quite possibly today’s most famous classical musician. But as many of his fans around the world already know, his curiosity knows no boundaries. Whether he’s gliding through Jacob Do Bandolim’s “Doce de Coco” with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera or journeying into the heart of Central Asia with his equally distinguished Silk Road Project collaborators, the cellist plays with a palpable sense of delight and wonder.

Founded in 1998 to explore the rich musical diversity of the peoples along the historic trade route, the Silk Road Project was documented on the 2002 album Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (Sony Classical). “This September we’re doing a number of educational programs,” Ma says, “including a big collaboration with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Carnegie Hall that will result in workshops, seminars and concerts at Tanglewood in Massachusetts and in New York. Right now, we’re looking at Rom [Gypsy] music-music that moved and changed over time with the Roma’s migration.”

Ma’s interests extend to exploring the sense of self-identity and communication of cultural ideals that all kinds of art create. “One of the other Silk Road initiatives is a partnership we have with about eight museums around the world,” he says. “We’re looking at the objects and artifacts in these museum collections, and we animate those artworks through traditional and improvised music.

“What’s really interesting is that in the four years that we’ve been working on the Silk Road Project we’ve played in places where this music is almost totally unknown, such as during our recent trip to Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. And we’ve been so welcomed everywhere. People are hungry for this,” Ma enthuses. “That, to me, is such a beautiful thing, especially when you consider that this music doesn’t have famous composers’ names attached to it. People really respond.

“All these projects are ultimately about relationships and interconnectedness,” Ma says. “For the Silk Road Project, we have a core group of ensemble players, but those ensembles extend to friends, and friends of friends, and local musicians as well. We hope that these collaborations are the seeds of something new that can grow locally.

It’s the same way that he and his collaborators worked on 2003’s Obrigado Brazil and the new Obrigado Brazil: Live in Concert (both on Sony Classical). “The first Brazilian disc was the result of an Astor Piazzolla project [1997’s Soul of the Tango], with the pianist and composer Jorge Calandrelli and the guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves and Sergio and Odair Assad. When we were working on the Piazzolla, they all kept saying to me, ‘You gotta listen to Brazilian music!'”

In this way, each of Ma’s steps becomes a road to some entirely new avenue. “On Obrigado Brazil, that core group is still here, but suddenly we’ve expanded to the fabulous Rosa Passos, guitarist and pianist Egberto Gismonti, percussionist Cyro Baptista and bass player Nilson Matta.” This success also led to a breakthrough for Brazilian vocalist and guitarist Passos; she’s been signed to a solo deal with Sony Classical. Her first release, a tribute to Joao Gilberto called Amorosand, is slated to be released in June on Sony Odyssey.

Even between the release Obrigado Brazil and Obrigado Brazil: Live in Concert, Ma notes that both the concept and nature of the collaboration morphed into something new yet again. “After we made the first CD, we started touring, of course, but we decided not to tour the album, per se. People started bringing in new pieces, and that became the second disc. It’s all about evolution and the creation of more new friendships. Now, Rosa has her contract. Paquito is touring with the Assads and the pianist Kathy Stott and I are touring some of Gismonti’s works. I know we’ll all be together again, too, either in this form or in different groups, because we’re friends. I’m dying for Sergio and Odair to meet the Chinese pipa player Wu Man, whom I’ve worked with on the Silk Road Project, because I know there’s going to be electricity there!”

Ma says that his musical adventures have opened many doors, without shutting any others. While he delves into music from Central Asia, South America, North Africa and elsewhere, Ma remains committed to performing and recording core classical repertoire. The elegant Vivaldi’s Cello album, released in March, is his third collaboration on disc with the noted conductor Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. The cellist says that his explorations of non-European music have guided him toward a deeper understanding of Western classical music.

“The fear is that somehow you might spread yourself too thin,” Ma says. “But what I’ve found, every single time that I’ve tried to stretch in a new direction, is that I’ve become a better musician. I play Bach better, I play Handel better, I play Tchaikovsky better. I’m listening to every piece I’ve known since I was a child with fresh ears.”