Fans of bluegrass, classical, jazz and South Asian music came together at the Chicago Symphony Center Sunday evening for a concert by four world-class musicians who performed an eclectic symphony of world music.
Bela Fleck, the virtuoso who can make a banjo perform in amazing ways, played on the traditional end of the quartet along with Edgar Meyer, who skillfully played his upright contra bass, both picking and bowing. Sitting amongst his array of tabla drums was Zakir Hussain, a magician of finger percussion. He played the wooden and skin-covered tabla with fingers and palms, and the results ranged from tender and melodic to intense and dramatic. The three were joined by featured musician Rakesh Chaurasia, a master of the bansuri or bamboo flute and an ambassador for Indian classical music.
Their two-hour concert featured their own compositions, music that transcends genre and creates a surprising fusion of musical styles. Despite the fusion, the most delightful result of this musical merger is the perfect separation of sounds. No matter the song being played, it was always possible to hear the unique plonk/plink sounds of the banjo, the pizzicato and deep beat of the bass (as Meyer fingers or bows), and the soft or boisterous percussion of the tabla, always keeping the beat. The interactions, melodic handoffs and uncanny timing during each number might remind you of a jazz trio.
The first set started off with “Bubbles” (see video below) and “53” and closed with Hussain’s “Pashto,” which has Celtic and Indian roots. “Pashto” began with a flute solo by Chaurasia, then Meyer came in with deep-toned bowing and Fleck with the banjo. The tabla is the backbeat to all. The second set opened with Hussain’s “Beast in the Garden,” in which he provided madly brilliant percussion across his array of tabla and sang a minute or so of scat, using voice as instrument. After several songs composed by Meyer and Hussain, the set closed with Hussain’s “Making Music.” This is a composition of solo perfection, demonstrating the sui generis sound of each instrument, like a salade composée before it’s mixed. Hussain began his composition with a bravura solo on tabla, in which he brought varied percussive tones from the two lead tablas as well as the smaller ones that surrounded him on the drum platform. There was a series of playful call and response phrases on tabla and flute, then long solos by Chaurasia, Meyer and Fleck. The final movement brought all four instruments together in a glorious conclusion. The group returned to play an encore.
Bela Fleck is founder of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which has toured and recorded for 30 years. He also tours with his wife, Abigail Washburn, who sings and plays clawhammer banjo. (I first became a fan of his banjo when he was playing with the progressive bluegrass band, New Grass Revival, at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Bluegrass Music Festival in Louisville in the mid-‘80s.) Edgar Meyer, renowned as a composer and master of classical, folk and world music, also has toured with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and mandolinist Chris Thile. Zakir Hussain, a child prodigy, debuted at the age of 12 with Pandit Ravi Shankar at the Fillmore East in New York in 1970. He’s well known for his many ensembles and collaborations. Rakesh Chaurasia, nephew of renowned flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, is known for his approach to bansuri with classical and non-classical music with mixed instrumental ensembles.