By Mike Finkelstein
On Tuesday night the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA presented Crosscurrents, a truly special ensemble of legendary Western and Indian virtuoso musicians, to a full house. The group members are Zakir Hussain (tablas), Louiz Banks (piano/keyboards), Dave Holland (bass), Shankar Mahadevan (vocals), Sanjay Divecha (guitar), Vikku “V” Selvagenesh (drums). Led by luminaries Hussain and Holland, the group’s focus gave traditional jazz treatments to everything from individual compositions to classical Indian music to 12 bar blues, using Indian percussion instruments. It was just the right match for Royce Hall to present a show with the sonic subtleties of this music, which has always influenced jazz. Because it is so tied to improvisation, it also became a perfect match for Indian musicians to embrace jazz. In the right hands, some awesome musical possibilities developed out of this merging of styles. There are probably no six more capable sets of hands to make this happen than the ones at Royce Hall on Tuesday.
At the start of the show, Hussain gently filled the audience in on the history of how jazz came to Indian by way of Hollywood musicals in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. The jazzier dance numbers had captured the imagination and inspiration of many upcoming Indian musicians and so the cross pollination began. Behind him on stage were the instruments, an intriguing collection of traditional Western instruments like the upright bass, piano, and both electric and acoustic guitars as well as Hussain’s riser (on which he played sitting cross-legged for the whole show) full of tablas and smaller hand cymbals. On the far end of the stage was Vikku’s setup of low set hand cymbals mixed with what looked like several different snare sized and shaped more conventional Western styled drums. One of V’s drums was even mounted on its side with a kick pedal on the outside of the drum.
The percussion was the pivot point in fusing jazz and Indian styles. The big paradigm shift was that neither of these great percussionists used sticks. By using their fingers, they have 10 points of contact, rather than two, and a whole lot less of the attack noise associated with using drumsticks. The dexterity involved with playing the tablas is impressive. It allows for super fast yet clearly articulate runs. You could see the players using their fingers, palms, and forearms to make each drum, ping, rattle, rub, and throb with a wide range of tone and volume. More of a range of sounds than one might have imagined the drum actually offered. The cymbals sounded different without sticks – it was a smaller soothing splash of sound, rather than the wash of it that bigger cymbals and sticks would have brought.
The program opened with “The Dove Flies” and “Shadows,” two pieces that were rooted harmonically in traditional jazz. This structure gave each player an opportunity to step up and introduce themselves, instrumentally. The Royce Hall grand piano was perfectly miked and Louiz Banks’ sound never got too loud or too far out harmonically. His chording put a rich but composed sheen on the leading edge of the sound.
Just underneath those chords we had Holland and Hussain leaning in and often going beat for beat, nuance for nuance with each other. When Hussain was done playing off Holland, the next exchange was likeliest to be with V. The sound of these two percussionists, as busy and precise as they were, remained a marvelous balance of smoothness and, actually, composure. While there were times when both were clearly going full throttle they were never anywhere other than in each other’s wheelhouse.
The evening elevated with the much-anticipated onstage arrival of vocalist Shankar Mahdevan. With him in front, their first selection was a piece of classical Indian music centuries old. He told us that they were going to try a few things with it. The jazzy interplay was there, of course, but it was Mahdevan’s singing that rose highest in the mix. He scatted and soared, as he waved his fingers as if navigating though clouds. And it looked to be a simple extension of his vocal delivery.
After intermission guitarist Sanjay Divecha got to shine on, “J Pye,” an homage to John McLaughlin (both Holland and V have played quite a bit with JM) and “The Solace.” The latter was the one tune that featured an acoustic guitar and it was a beautiful cycle of chords that still left enough space for Hussain and V to exchange a few more ideas. Divecha turned in a great rest of the night, practicing the art of tastefully delivered electric jazz rhythm guitar. He had a super warm tone and his leads, few as they were, sounded composed, balanced and simpler than they actually were.
The encore was a song called “Breathless,” an enormously popular song in India from 1998. The crowd at UCLA recognized it immediately and the festivities went up yet another notch. This tune was aptly titled, as there was one middle section where Mahdevan sang a high-pitched scat for what seemed like far too long to go without a breath. But, with his hands, it also seemed that he was swimming into some sort of rarefied musical air to keep it all coming. He really did make it look and sound easy… as did the whole ensemble. Such mesmerizing composure. A job very well done.