Zakir Hussain makes Aspen Music Fest debut

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyTabla player Zakir Hussain makes his Aspen Music Festival debut in a concert with banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer on Wednesday, Aug. 18 at Benedict Music Tent.

ASPEN – The first ingredient in creating the trio of banjoist Bela Fleck, bassist Edgar Meyer and tabla player Zakir Hussain was coincidence.

Back in 1983, Meyer was a student at the Aspen Music Festival, and Fleck was in Aspen for the Pitkin County Fair. Strolling near the pedestrian mall, Fleck heard some intriguing low notes coming from outside an ice cream shop, and investigated. It was Meyer, and the two started jamming. It was the beginning of a partnership that would include membership in a band, Strength in Numbers; numerous recordings, including the 2004 duo album “Music for Two” which featured tunes from Bach to Miles Davis; and a 2004 double concerto for bass and banjo, commissioned by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which Fleck and Meyer composed together.

The next element in forming the trio was technical virtuosity. When the Nashville Symphony approached Fleck and Meyer about writing a triple concerto, for the opening of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, they said sure, provided that Hussain be brought into the circle. “Zakir is the greatest improviser in the world,” Meyer said of the Indian-born percussionist.

Hussain was just as eager for the collaboration. When representatives of the Nashville Symphony called, “I jumped onto it before they even asked the question,” he said from his home near San Francisco. “I’d seen Bela’s music for years, when I played at various festivals that he was at. I had seen Edgar play with Yo-Yo Ma, with Chris Thile. It was a no-brainer.'”

When they finally assembled as a threesome, at the Boulderado Hotel, a mystical aspect entered the picture. As they finished their first session of playing together, a huge rainbow arced over Boulder. “That was an omen,” Hussain said. “It was clear to us we were meant to play together, to explore this highway.”

The “Melody of Rhythm” triple concerto had its debut in Nashville in September 2006, but that wasn’t the end of the road for the trio. Early in 2009 the threesome played a series of concerts in Detroit, with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin, and recorded the performances. That summer they reconvened in Detroit to record several trio numbers, and a CD, “The Melody of Rhythm,” with the concerto and the trio pieces, was released a year ago.

Fleck, Meyer and Hussain have spent part of this summer touring as a chamber trio, and the range of festivals they have played – Telluride Bluegrass; the Litchfield Jazz Festival, in Conn.; and on Wednesday, Aug. 18, in Hussain’s local debut, at the classical-oriented Aspen Music Festival – reflects the wide appeal of the music. And as the threesome advances their musical collaboration, with a tour of Europe ahead of them and talk of a second album if they can find time, they have added facets to their relationship. Their families have become close, and vacationed together. Talk about food and recipes often pushes aside music conversations.

“When you collaborate with someone, it’s on many levels,” said Hussain, who also accompanied Fleck and Meyer on a 2007 duo tour. “You have to come together on many levels, and intimacy is of prime importance. Both Bela and Edgar went out of their way to find out where I came from, what I ate, who my teachers were.”

Hussain likens the current combo to the long-term relationship he has with British guitarist John McLaughlin. In the mid-’70s, the two formed Shakti, an influential band that blended jazz with Indian styles, among the first examples of a cross-cultural fusion.

“With John, when you have that understanding of each other’s cultures, the music has that level of respect, interaction and know-how, and it makes the experience that much more meaningful,” Hussain said.

Hussain has entered many musical worlds since moving from his native Mumbai in the early ’70s. Among his early contacts in the San Francisco Bay area, where he settled soon after coming to the States, was Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. Hussain played on virtually all of Hart’s multi-cultural percussion projects, from 1972’s “Rolling Thunder”; to “Planet Drum,” which earned the first Grammy for Best World Music Album, in 1991; to 2007’s “Global Drum Project.”

In June, Fleck and Meyer opened a new door for Hussain, into the realm of the bluegrass festival. Hussain was unsure how the trio’s music – quiet, sophisticated chamber music, more suited to the concert hall than an open-air festival of dancers – would go over at Telluride Bluegrass. But he said he didn’t realize just how revered his bandmates were in Telluride.

“I was like, ‘Wow, you guys didn’t tell me you were like warlords here,” Hussain said. “The audience in Telluride, they were focused. They weren’t just hanging out, tripping, whatever. It was great to see that love and affection coming to them in that world.”

Hussain was raised in the world of Indian tabla music; his late father, Alla Rakha, was a prominent tabla player who collaborated frequently with sitarist Ravi Shankar. The 2,000-year-old tabla repertoire is built on movements that contain elements of both structured music and improvisation, and the skill to move from one to the other has been crucial to Hussain’s playing. “The compositional element and the improvisation coexist in a very peaceful environment,” he said of the Indian music he grew up on. That ability has been especially important in his work with Fleck and Meyer, both of whom combine in their playing the improvisation of jazz and bluegrass, and the precise notation of classical music.

In 1970, Hussain first came to America, to fill in for his father on tour with Shankar. His first concert was at New York’s Fillmore East, and it served as his introduction to America’s hippie scene. A few years later, after a stint as a teacher at the University of Washington, in Seattle, he was brought to San Francisco by the Indian singer Ali Akbar Khan. As he met and played with Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia, “A whole new horizon was opening up,” he said.

As big as the cultural awakening was the new outlook on drumming. He was introduced to the Egyptian Hamza El-Din, jazz players Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, and the Brazilian Airto Moreira. “I suddenly realized we had a lot to learn. We had an age-old tradition, but there were a lot of rhythms to learn.”

One of the key encounters was meeting jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who reinforced a philosophy that had been planted by Hussain’s father: Don’t try to be a master; master the art of being a student.

“Charles Lloyd said, ‘I haven’t played good enough to quit yet,'” Hussain said. “That was a profound statement. If you think you’re perfect, you might as well hang up your boots.”

Within the current trio, Hussain thinks it is Meyer who has to make the biggest adaptation – or “the most desert to cross,” as he puts it. Meyer comes from the Western classical world – he is on the Aspen Music School faculty, and in demand as a composer – and he plays a rhythm instrument, Hussain said, and has not interacted before with a tabla player, “which is way different than drums.”

By comparison, Hussain says his load is easy: “I’m a rhythm player. It’s either 4/4 or 6/8, and you’re making it with a different tone.”

Still, Hussain has approached the trio as if it were a learning opportunity.

“It’s been a great classroom,” he said. “My learning process still continues. Now my teachers are Bela and Edgar.”