Sunday, December 21, 2014

Combo offers unique sound

Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer will bring their unusual combination of instruments to the Mondavi Center April 14.

April 7, 2011 |


What: Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, April 14

Where: Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $58-$35 general, $29-$17.50 students, available at or (530) 754-2787

Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer form a trio like no other.

Fleck plays the banjo, and specializes in the American bluegrass sound. He’s won several Grammy Awards.

Meyer plays a double bass — an instrument that came up through classical orchestras in Europe, but has also worked its way into jazz bands and other branches of American music, including an album of Americana with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Mark O’Connor.

And Zakir Hussain, who was born in India, is a tabla player — meaning the set of three drums, played with fingers and the palms of the hands — that are common in traditional Indian music.

This uncommon combination of instruments will be featured in a concert at the Mondavi Center on Thursday at 8 p.m.

How did such a diverse group get together? As it turns out, Fleck and Meyer have been acquainted for decades. They met in 1983, during an informal jam session in front of a Haagen-Dazs ice cream parlor in Aspen, Colorado — a college town, also home to an important classical music festival, and a regular destination for bluegrass musicians as well.

Meyer and Fleck, both musicians who like to think outside the box, became friends and continued to play together. In 2004, the Nashville Symphony commissioned them to write a double concerto for banjo and bass. That project was well received, and led to an invitation to compose a triple concerto (for banjo, bass and a third instrument to be determined) to mark the 2006 grand opening of the Nashville Symphony’s new home, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

And Fleck and Meyer picked Zakir Hussain as their “dream collaborator.”

The resulting triple concerto, titled “The Melody of Rhythm,” formed the basis of an album that was released in 2009. And the trio of Fleck, Meyer and Hussain put together several pieces for themselves (not featuring an orchestra) that are featured on the album as well.

“In addition to the trio numbers on the album, we’ve got new material that we are working on during our current tour as a trio,” said Zakir Hussain, in a phone interview with The Enterprise. “We’re hoping to put together a new album.”

Hussain acknowledged that the group is a one-of-a-kind project. “What’s interesting about the three instruments is that the banjo is primarily a melody instrument, but it’s also percussive and rhythmic. And so is the bass. With the tabla, we have a percussion instrument — but it also has melodic tones. In concert, we find that the three of us are switching from melody to rhythm and back again. We are able to explore our songs from my point of view, or Edgar’s or Béla’s, and that is one of the things that is unique.”

Improvisation plays a role. “Indian music relies a lot on improvisation, and Béla has worked with a lot of jazz musicians (who do improv).” There’s also a tradition of improvisation and ornamentation in Baroque music, which Meyer plays on occasion (Meyer’s much-admired album adapting three of the Unaccompanied Cello Suites by J.S. Bach to the double bass being an example). “Edgar will probably be playing one of the Bach cello suites as part of the concert at Mondavi,” Hussain advised.

Touring with a banjo is fairly easy, but taking along a double bass and a tabla set presents a few challenges. “Edgar has to buy two seats because of the bass,” Hussain said, adding that he carries his instruments with him on the plane as well — and keeps supplies ready, just in case. “When we were rehearsing in Nashville before the tour, one of my tabla skins split. It just broke. So I have sets available in New York and California. The instruments are handmade, and it’s not like you can find new skins at any music store along the way. I also have special instrument cases that were made for me by a company in Colorado. The cases are humidified, they’re special.”

How do crowds react when they see a banjo, double bass and tabla on stage? “Sometimes you can tell that they are thinking ‘Where is the lead guitar? Where is the horn section?’” Hussain said. “I don’t think they really have a clue what to expect — which is the same thing that happened when Béla and Edgar and myself first got together. At that meeting, I asked them to teach me some harmonic ideas, and Edgar asked me to teach him some raga melodies and rhythmic tabla patterns. So that’s how it began. I thought ‘Wow, these guys are great musicians, and they’re asking me to teach them something.’ It was very humbling.”

“My father always told me ‘Don’t try to be a master, just be a good student, and you’ll be fine,’” Hussain recalled. “That’s the way I feel as well. If the audience comes with an open mind and open ears, they’re going to see rhythms and melodies and harmonies appear from all three of us. It’s interesting to see this dialog.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at or (530) 747-8055.



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