Melody and Rhythm: Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer in concert

Often, when world-renowned artists team up to form a “super group” the result is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This was happily not the case with Sunday evening’s concert at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts.

Often, when world-renowned artists team up to form a “super group” the result is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This was happily not the case with Sunday evening’s concert at University of Richmond’s Modlin Center for the Arts.

Banjoist Béla Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer, and tabla master Zakir Hussain are the most famous and celebrated performers on their respective instruments. Though they each possess limitless virtuosity and a myriad of timbral and textural possibilities, it turns out that the most vital quality that the trio shares is the ability to listen and respond with humility and respect for each other and, more significantly, for the music.

From the opening notes of “Bubbles,” a Fleck composition that began the concert, it became clear that dialogue was the watchword for the evening. The trio carried on extended improvisatory conversations, communicating with each other and with the composition with such clarity and honesty that for much of the time, it was difficult to tell what was composed and what was improvised.

Hussain’s ability to play melodies on the bāyāñ – the lower pitched drum of the two tabla drums – freed Meyer up from the role of the sole bass voice so that he could function at times as a soaring soprano or a mournful baritone voice. In the trio’s adaptation of The Melody of Rhythm – the concerto for the soloists and full orchestra that is the centerpiece of the trio’s recent album – Meyer, Hussain, and Fleck built their collective improvisations into extended climaxes, using such a variety of textures and colors that the trio seemed to be more than compensating for the missing orchestra.

The trio are shrewd programmers as well — not every song was an epic adventure that pushed the limits of possibility; one can only take so much of that before becoming numb to the music. Some pieces were lighter fare both in intensity and in musical scope, a welcome contrast to be sure. “Out of the Blue” with its funky backbeat feel and the occasional nod to Miles Davis’s “So What” from the landmark jazz album Kind of Blue was one of the most fun pieces of the evening. The casual and often silly banter between the performers as they introduced the compositions showed that they take the music seriously, not themselves.

Each member of the trio played a solo piece, demonstrating that they were more than capable of carrying the music by themselves. Most notable of these was Hussain’s exploration of melody, harmony and rhythm on his seven (yes seven!) different pitched tabla. He used a familiar pentatonic scale created by the six upper tabla and provided a wonderful harmonic context using the bāyāñ as a melodic bass voice. These interludes were a nice reprieve from the trio pieces, giving the audience a chance to focus on the one performer.

Impressive as the solo pieces were, the highlight of the concert was the collaborative process between the three artists. Some of the music had a strong flavor of India – a meditative droning bass with a set tonality – with Fleck and Meyer speaking the language of the raga with their characteristic American accents. Other pieces borrowed more from the American folk/bluegrass tradition and yet others were more reminiscent of European classical music. Throughout the night, Hussain’s keen musical instincts and understanding of all musical styles showed why he is a favorite collaborator for some of the West’s most revered musicians including John McLaughlin’s, Charles Lloyd, and George Harrison. On every song, each musician played with sincerity and was able to relate effectively not only to the musical genre of the moment but also to each other.

The epitome of this process was “Bahar,” a Hussain composition. The melody, though based on an Indian Raga is evocative of American folk tune. This piece was truly a universal musical statement, with each performer able to relate to the melody in a personal way and to work with each other to create a sublime blend of sound that was at once familiar and also unlike anything that I have heard before.

This was definitely one of the most amazing and enjoyable concerts in recent memory and for those reading this who were not fortunate enough to be in the sold-out crowd, the offerings of the upcoming Richmond Folk Festival will hopefully ease your pain.

(Photo by Jim McGuire)

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Taylor Barnett

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