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Original story from November 2009.
By Bob Weinberg
Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer could have chosen anyone as the third member of their commissioned trio. Zakir Hussain topped both their wish lists.
With no more than smiles and nods to greet the Miami audience, the musicians assumed their places on the Olympia Theater stage and commenced playing. Attired in a black shirt and matching jeans, banjoist Béla Fleck planted himself front-porch-style in a wooden chair, his left, sneaker-shod foot propped on a footrest, his dexterous fingers picking his instrument with deceptive ease. To his left, in a light-blue button-down shirt and dress slacks, Edgar Meyer pulled resonant notes from his upright bass, his hand often darting to a nearby wooden stool to collect his bow for some masterful arco playing. And next to Meyer, clad in a mint-green, knee-length tunic, the impish Zakir Hussain sat atop a raised platform, surrounded by a battery of tabla drums that he played with mesmerizing speed and precision.
Of course, the trio needed no fanfare as they launched into Fleck’s effervescent composition “Bubbles” and Hussain’s impossibly swift-flowing “Babar,” both of which are featured on the threesome’s new recording The Melody of Rhythm. Their dazzling musicianship spoke more eloquently than any awkwardly mumbled greeting, although all three later displayed considerable charm and wit on the microphone as they took turns talking about the music, trading quips and engaging in some brotherly teasing about whose instrument was the most difficult.
“Zakir, I think you’re going to need a bigger hammer,” Fleck kidded his colleague, as he handed over a large rubber mallet he must have found backstage, indicating that the next piece, a new tune they had just begun playing, would require something more substantial than the tuning hammer Hussain had been using. The mischievous drummer accepted the gift and stuck it in his breast pocket, prompting giggles from the audience. But the night’s biggest laugh came when Meyer was tuning his bass, and, with Harpo Marx-like timing, Hussain then offered him the mallet.
The natural camaraderie among the musicians is as evident as their skillful blending of musical traditions. Fleck and Meyer have been working together for decades, but neither had collaborated with Hussain before embarking on The Melody of Rhythm project. The recording, which was released in August, is the result of a commission from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Fleck and Meyer were tasked by the orchestra to compose a triple concerto for banjo and bass plus one, with the tantalizing stipulation that they could choose whomever they liked as the third member. One name topped both of their wish lists: Zakir Hussain.
“Edgar and I are big fans of Zakir’s, and we were able to offer him this big commission to write a piece with us,” Fleck enthuses by phone during a tour stop in Portland, Oregon. “In the process, we became good friends, and it’s just a wonderful experience. The banjo and the tabla have had an appointment to get together, because they’re a natural fit. They both roll fast patterns, and I can learn so much from [Hussain]. I think it’s going to invigorate my playing.”
“Zakir has made a lifetime reach toward the West in terms of learning Western music,” Meyer says of the tabla virtuoso, who has worked with George Harrison, John McLaughlin, Charles Lloyd and the Grateful’s Dead’s Mickey Hart. “So if we never learned a note of what he’s doing, he’ll come all the way to us, if that’s what’s needed. I mean, we don’t want that; we want to learn as much as we can from him, but he does make it easy.”
That ease of communication, not to mention the musicians’ sheer joy of playing with one another, permeates The Melody of Rhythm, which has topped the Billboard Classical Music Chart. Comprising performances by the trio, and the trio in the company of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, the recording seamlessly blends classical, jazz, world and folk traditions. Individual compositions were contributed by Fleck, Meyer and Hussain, and all three collaborated on the three-part title suite.
Fleck’s quicksilver picking runs like a clear mountain stream throughout, often revealing his bluegrass roots, but other times traveling to exotic Eastern ports of call. Steeped in both classical music and Americana, Meyer adds a rich sonority to the proceedings, particularly when he pulls bow across strings. And Hussain’s playing simply defies the laws of physics, his fingertips flying across the signature black-dot drum heads of his tablas with crisp articulation and endless melodic ideas. The Melody of Rhythm title certainly seems apt.
“It was an afterthought,” Meyer says of the album name, his laid-back Southern drawl tipping a hand to his Tennessee origins. “It’s a good afterthought. You know, with Zakir, [melody and rhythm] are so deeply connected. And you don’t have one without the other, really. When he executes a rhythm, there is a melody to it. It’s never just a bunch of hits in time on a drum.”
“The more I understand about Indian music, the more I can find the common ground between us,” Fleck relates of the East-meets-West teamup. “I’ve paid close attention to Indian ragas, although I don’t pretend to have mastered them. I’d experiment with restricting myself to certain notes of scale and leaving out other ones, or going up one way and coming down a different way. And that’s done a lot in jazz. I’d say the jazz training I’ve had has been more helpful in playing Indian music than the bluegrass. Although the fast rhythms and the tight 16th notes is a very Indian classical music concept that is also in bluegrass.”
Fleck has long sought out new challenges and contexts in which to place the banjo. After creating a stir with modern-leaning bluegrass bands such as New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers in the 1980s, the New York native gained his greatest acclaim with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, winning audiences worldwide with a singular mix of funk, fusion and Americana. The group continues to tour, and should be out on the road in November and December.
Recently, Fleck embarked on a pair of ambitious projects. Released last year, The Enchantment presented an album of duets with Chick Corea. In 2005, Fleck traveled to Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia and Mali, tracing the origins of the banjo back to its African roots and collaborating with indigenous musicians. The results of that adventure were chronicled on the CD and documentary film (now available on DVD) Throw Down Your Heart.
In whatever setting Fleck chooses to participate, he wants to be profoundly changed by the experience, to add new colors to his ever-expanding musical palette. Certainly, The Melody of Rhythm fulfilled those aims and benefitted from them.
“Having been to Africa, I think I brought some different melodies and ways of playing the banjo to the trio [with Meyer and Hussain],” he says. “And once they get colored by the Indian ideas and the Western classical ideas, and the bluegrass is already in me, I figure it’s more just continuing to find myself. Not through imitation, but assimilation. The more different musical things from around the world become more of my basic nature, the more I’ll come up with new music that’s interesting and individual. I just like to soak it all up and see how it comes back out of me.”
Featured photo by Sachyn Mitall.