To refer to cello player Mike Block as simply a virtuoso would seem to sell him short. A composer, educator, vocalist, and indeed a musical pioneer, his talents can’t be contained by any single genre. His work spans any number of styles, and indeed, his past collaborations with a literal who’s-who of prestigious icons — YoYo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stevie Wonder, the New York Philharmonic, Bobby McFerrin, Rhiannon Giddens, and Mike Marshall among the many — underscores the fact that his prolific prowess knows no bounds.
The evidence of that proficiency is immediate on Block’s exceptional new effort, Walls of Time, an album that’s singularly spectacular simply by virtue of its distinctive diversity. A continuation of Block’s fascination with the American folk tradition and the cultural context from which it was spawned, it’s a daring musical venture that brings new life to classic songs, and reinvents even the most established standards in ways that defy the original templates. Aided and abetted by such distinguished collaborators as fiddlers Darol Anger and Bruce Molsky, mandolin master Joe K. Walsh and bassist Zachariah Hickman, as well as an international array of musicians that add their steady support, Block breaks boundaries in wholly unexpected ways.
His take on the ageless standard, Johnny B. Good, reinvents the song in ways few could ever imagine, transforming it from a signature rocker to a bluegrass brush-up. Bob Dylan’s remorseful Lay Down Your Weary Tune becomes a soothing and sedate lullaby, flush with comfort and caress. C.C. Rider is reimagined with a steady stride that’s far more compelling than it’s ever been before. More surprising still, Bill Monroe’s Old Dangerfield takes on Celtic airs, a tack Block repeats on the jaunty pair of traditional offerings that follow, The Blackest Crow and a medley that combines Julianne Johnson and Forked Deer. The latter retain a verve and vitality even despite their spare settings.
In the end, Walls of Times is an album that excels through invention and ingenuity. It reflects the vision of a true musical master, an artist beholden to the past while fashioning a palette that looks forward towards the future. It defies any attempt at categorization while finding familiarity in the sum of its parts. A transformative tapestry, it sets a standard few others will ever attain.