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Martin Longley's Music Blog

INDIAN SOUNDS: NEW YORK (Part 2)

19-06-2009

PHOTO: ©susana millman 2006/Getty Images

The Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain plays at London's Barbican tonite. Martin Longley caught his recent run of shows in New York City...

Zakir Hussain: Carnegie Hall

The Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain is probably having his best week of the year. Hussain is visibly proud of being able to present his tabla skills over four nights at Carnegie Hall, three times in its smaller Zankel Hall, and then climaxing on the main stage with a final jazz-orientated performance.

The Perspectives concept (this is a decade-old tradition at Carnegie) is to invite a varied set of collaborators, thereby making each concert a distinct experience.

Hussain is successful, as each evening possesses a markedly different character, making completist attendance anything but a trial. The first gig inhabits the traditional raga repertoire of North Indian classical music, in partnership with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the santoor player.

This is a type of hammered dulcimer, not dissimilar to the concept also shared with the cimbalom and the qanun, wherein a multitude of tuning-temperamental strings are stroked and struck by a pair of spatulas.

Hussain and Sharma have been playing together for around four decades, so it's not surprising that they enjoy a noticeable rapport, delicately weaving a path that begins with a graceful alap by Sharma, evolving into a heady ricochet dialogue between the two, reaching repeated peaks before the authentic conclusion finally arrives. Hussain still retains a remarkable air of youth and vitality, as he rapidly approaches sixty.

Sharma has a more meditative, slightly introverted aspect, which is well suited to the rippling cascades that he creates on his 86-stringed santoor. It's hard to believe that this instrument was once frowned upon as a potential interpreter of the repertoire. Now, after many years of Sharma's virtual single-handed persistence, it seems eminently well-suited, particularly as he's modified it, increasing the string-spread. Sharma has effectively devoted his entire playing life to the instrument, since he was 17 years old, back in 1955 (he too looks much younger than his years!).

The second evening features the regularly-touring Masters Of Percussion, and allows an opportunity for true drum-obsession. Hussain gets this started with what he announces is his only chance during these four nights to take a tabla solo.

It's an often flabbergasting demonstration of his technique, but like much of this particular concert, it suffers from a lack of self-editing. When Hussain begins his bol display (this is the tabla-talk, where vocal syllables are matched to drumhead sounds), it's initially compelling, but ends up being overdone, beginning to sound like an extended workshop session.

Surely the first half is almost over, and jazz drummer Steve Smith must be thinking this too when he enters, as if to announce that time is running out for the ensemble's other three percussionists. Smith is perhaps surprisingly attuned to the Indian classical form, mostly playing with light sticks or brushes, very delicately bouncing around his skins, and capitalising on their tuned sensitivities.

His Vital Information might be renowned for their hard-surfaced fusion, but Smith has been busy studying the Indian classical form. Hussain and Smith engage (briefly) in a fruitful dialogue, but the gig's major problem is now becoming apparent.

When four master percussionists are combined, what's expected is surely some kind of extended group exploration, particularly when they're arriving from such different musical traditions. A suspicion arises that such compatibility is not easily attained, as the second set begins with a long solo by the Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, followed by a similar run from the South Indian T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram, demonstrating the extremely wide-range of his clay-pot ghatam.

Three-quarters of this combo have played together as part of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum project, and the Grateful Dead drummer is indeed present in the audience. During the sporadic sections where all four percussionists actually play together the dialogue appears successful, so maybe the foursome simply needed more rehearsal time to properly mesh their divergent traditions into a single entity.

The third concert suffers no such problem. In fact, the opposite situation is the case. The meeting between Hussain, banjoman Béla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer results in a tightly-reined sequence of tunes that leave little time for talking, no time for any hesitation, and despite apologies for an unfamiliarity with this fresh repertoire, the trio give the impression of complete fluency and poise.

Fleck and Meyer are no strangers to Indian classical music, having both appeared on albums released by Water Lily Acoustics, a label that's famed for melding wildly divergent Eastern and Western traditions. The evening's two sets are shorter and more concentrated, and there seems to be no lack of joyfully interactive material to work through.

The Hussain/Fleck/Meyer trio first collaborated in 2006, when they premiered a concerto with the Nashville Symphony. Subsequently, it was also performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. More recently, the threesome have been recording an album which is set for release in August 2009.

It might be expected that bluegrass would be the dominant force, but Fleck is such a musically omnivorous character that this element is only one ingredient. Of course, Meyer and Hussain are no genre-bound beings either. There are traces of Indian classical, Western classical, jazz and old-timey country pickin', but essentially their music is imbued with a composite personality that doesn't particularly sound like a fusion. It just feels natural.

The last of the four Perspectives concerts just happens to be the best, transpiring on the main Carnegie stage, and featuring Sangam and the majority of the Remember Shakti ensemble (everyone but John McLaughlin, who was almost expected to make a surprise appearance here, given the fact that he was in New York over the preceding weekend).

Sangam is Hussain's trio with multi-instrumentalists Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland. Although ostensibly a jazz outfit, their music once again reaches a genre-transcending level, adapting elements from several diverse stylistic quarters.

The opening thirty minutes or so is a glorious ritual unfolding of improvisatory ideas, as Harland moves from piano to drumkit, whilst Lloyd does the same, as well as floating from flute to tenor saxophone to tárogató. This special intimate resonance is dispersed when Jason Moran steps in to guest on piano, followed by two members of the Remember Shakti troupe (singer Shankar Mahadevan and electric mandolinist U. Srinivas).

The delicate concentration turns into an uncertain combination, but eventually the players begin to mesh once more. After a break, the Shakti posse return to the world of Indian traditionalism, though their interpretation is mostly shorn of gradual development, opting for a more direct delivery of melodic motifs. They've resolved not to ration out the climaxes, thundering repeatedly through a series of sub-explosions.

The guesting of T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram adds a marked degree of momentum, as he raps, patters, clatters and tosses his ghatam with head-shaking gusto. Given that Vikku played with Shakti in both of its incarnations, he's not so much of a guest as a returning member. The mandolin flashes of Srinivas aren't sufficiently well amplified for much of the performance, and he finds a more audible sparring partner once Béla Fleck enters as another special guest. The banjoman manages to enter this challenging musical landscape with confidence and humour, even returning to take part in the encore.

Ali Ahmad Hussain Khan: Symphony Space

The shenai is a North Indian quadruple-reed horn, quite portable yet capable of a massively cutting, even harsh, projection. Its acknowledged master was Ustad Bismillah Khan, who passed onwards in 2006. This concert in the Upper West Side's Symphony Space is dedicated to his legacy, with Ali Ahmad Hussain Khan sitting at the vanguard of a triple-shenai formation.

His two sons, Ahmed Abbas and Hassan Haider continue the legacy on their accompanying horns, moving from atmospheric drones to shared solo lines. At first, the amount of reverberation effect on the shenais is startlingly extreme, particularly on that of Ali Ahmad himself. Could this be an inappropriate act on behalf of the mixing engineer, or is it a specific request from the Khans?

The shenai is most often heard in a far-walled temple or courtyard environment, but this reverb extremity sounds odd, particularly given that the tabla and tambura accompaniment are sounding at naturally closer quarters. Following the intermission, the sound's either been tweaked, or the ear has adapted, and the soundscape is less distracting.

The other noticeable character is that the horns sounds much smoother than when normally heard, as Bismillah Khan's recordings often find him reaching a powerfully bleating level. Once these factors have been digested, the listener is free for full immersion in the headily atmospheric music, which opens up into an uncharacteristic smoothness at times, almost as though the sound of the jazz soprano saxophone is feeding back into the old traditions as a modern influence.

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