Live Music: Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain at Royce Hall

By Don Heckman

The idea of assembling a trio consisting of banjo, string bass and tabla drums doesn’t, on the face of it, appear to be one of the more intriguing musical concepts of recent memory.  When the players, however, consist of banjoist Bela Fleck, string bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla drummer Zakir Hussain, the notion suddenly appears to have some doable possibilities.

Bela Fleck Zakir Hussain  Edgar Meyer
Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer

Many of those possibilities were realized in impressively musical fashion Thursday night during the trio’s performance in a UCLA Live program at Royce Hall. Each member of the group is, of course, a virtuoso player in his own right, and they have collaborated with each other in the past via various stylistic and ensemble formats. That previous familiarity with each other undoubtedly contributed to the sense of musical ease between the players, the relaxed feeling of almost symbiotic creative compatibility that pervaded the evening’s programming.

The music moved freely across boundaries associated with each player – Western classical music, bluegrass, jazz, Indian classical music, even an occasional taste of funk and groove.  On “Canon,” Fleck and Meyer worked their way through a startlingly complex musical round, with Hussain finding ways to emphasize the shifting rhythmic highlights.  “E-Minor” verged playfully toward a blues groove.  Other pieces dipped into raga-like melodies and tala-like rhythms reminiscent of Indian Classical music, the busy-fingered excitement of bluegrass and a few instances in which the timbres of the three instruments were combined to produce startlingly lush, near-orchestral sounds.

Given the virtuosic skills of the players, it was only appropriate that each was assigned a technique-displaying showcase opportunity.  And the results were extraordinary.  Meyer’s segment included an astonishing display of blindingly rapid arco laying.  Fleck, in his solo, displayed a range of sounds, textures and harmonic density that I’ve rarely – if ever – heard emanating from the banjo.  Hussain’s offering was both musically startling and entertainingly witty, ranging from the swift, precise rhythmic articulation and palm-driven pitch changes characteristic of the Indian classical style to a humorous (but musically serious) romp through the vocal solfege that is part of the complex Indian percussionist’s drumming technique.

What Fleck, Meyer and Hussain have done with this unique congregation is to open a door to fascinating new musical possibilities.  And I wonder how soon it will be before some enterprising composers – beyond the imaginative members of the trio themselves – explore the remarkable potentials in timbre, rhythm and pitch range that exists in this disparate, but compelling instrumental combination.

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