Indian Jazz With Banjo In-Fleck-tion—Zakir Meets Bela @ SFJazz

Posted on in Art + Soul by Roy Strassman

October 12, 2019

“Oh, what a night” it was at SFJazz, where a cohort of consummate masters lavished an incredible performance on a very lucky audience. Zakir Hussein, Bela Fleck, and Rakesh Churasia are all unequaled virtuosos on their respective instruments—tabla, banjo, and Bansuri Indian wood flute—and were artfully assisted by the versatile and accomplished bassist Edgar Meyer.

In addition to the seamless cohesiveness and profound virtuosity of the music, under Zakir’s inclusive leadership the group also entertained the listeners with a relaxed and amusing, almost comedic performance style,
clearly enjoying every minute of their 1½-hour set, often wisecracking to each other between tunes.

You might imagine that the group’s array of instrumentation would be a weird and clashing mix, but actually the opposite was true—a tonal blend that was hauntingly beautiful and even sublime. It was so perfect that at times it was difficult to discern where a sustained note of one instrument ended and another’s began. What also stood out—and this is by no means
a critique—was their interesting, consciously chosen approach to transcend polyphony through the linear unisons of meditative trance music but doing so with masterful hypnotic swing. These rhythmically and harmonically complex synchronizations were dazzling and sometimes even lasted the length of an entire chorus. Also of note was the consciously abrupt finish on several tunes, which occurred in the most unexpected places and was always flawlessly tight.

You might also expect that with a banjo player some of the music would at least give a nod to bluegrass. Not so, and the audience was instead introduced to something exciting and new—contemporary jazz banjo, thanks to the incredibly adroit fingers and wildly inventive musical imagination of Bela Fleck.

As one might expect, this richly textured jazz music was definitely but delicately and deliciously seasoned with Indian spice—somewhat reminiscent of the seminal ’70s group Oregon, with a soupçon of CoDoNa’s engaging, outré aesthetics.

What a musical feast … just had to stay for a second serving!


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