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Zakir Hussain: Making Music, Part 2-2

Zakir Hussain: Making Music, Part 2-2

Courtesy Nedici Dragoslav


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Music must travel forward and adapt itself to the needs of the day, while maintaining that umbilical cord connection to what was. It’s about who we are, where we came from and where we are headed.
—Zakir Hussain
Part 1 | Part 2

It seemed inevitable that Zakir Hussain would collaborate with jazz musicians as the '70s unfolded. Jazz had been sidling up to Indian classical music gradually since the early '60s.

In 1962, Gary Peacock and Bud Shank played on Ravi Shankar's album Improvisations (World Pacific), although this was very much a Shankar album; flautist Shank played in Indian style, while Peacock's presence was subdued.

The sitar also gravitated towards jazz, with guitarist Larry Coryell venturing into this unchartered realm—as was his wont—with The Free Spirits, on the album Out of Sight and Sound (ABS Records, 1967). With greater assurance, the tabla of Bengal-born Badal Roy colored albums by Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman and Dave Liebman in the late '60s and early '70s.

One of the most interesting fusions of Indian classical music and jazz took place in England, where Anglo-Indian John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Fusions—with Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott—produced three albums of raga—inspired jazz in the second half of the '60s.

By the time Zakir Hussain came to America in 1970, there was a blossoming movement towards cross-cultural experimentation. The musical experiments, however, as Hussain explains, were not the preserve of those in the West.

Bollywood Jam

In the mid-1960s, while Zakir Hussain's father, the great tablaist Allah Rakha, was touring internationally with Ravi Shankar, the teenaged Zakir brought in some useful extra income to the family by playing tabla in the Bollywood studios. For Hussain, the musical environment in which he found himself was progressive and, given the path he would later follow, would prove to be a useful learning curve for the young tabla player.

"When I was playing in Bollywood film orchestras a lot of the musicians had studied jazz. They were what you may call Eurasians because they had Portuguese or English roots where there were intermarriages. They had named like Da Costa, Da Silva and Magalhaes. They were mainly Catholics and studied western instruments in the churches and schools, but they had to make a living, so they hired out to Bollywood orchestras.

"They knew Western music, you know, harmonies, and so were hired as arrangers. There were horn players and bass players and piano players, and during the lull in recordings there would be jam sessions. It was inevitable that I would hear these orchestral Indian/Western interactions," Hussain explains.

"So, this fusion, which we credit Ravi Shankar with, was already taking place in India in the '40s, the '50s and '60s. Ravi Shankar was also part of it, in that he worked in Indian films, and so did my father and Ali Akbar Khan. They were aware and open-minded. So, when they arrived here, they were not hesitant to work with Yehudi Menuhin or André Previn or George Harrison. It was like, 'Hey, yes, I know what you do because I've done this in India with those Indian horn players.' It was the same when I came along."

For Hussain, the open-minded music scene in Bollywood was an early stamp on the musical passport that would take him so very far.

Karuna Supreme, A Love Supreme

Shortly before Hussain recorded the first Shakti album with John McLaughlin, he collaborated with former Charles Mingus saxophonist John Handy, on the exquisite album Karuna Supreme (MPS, 1976)—a meeting of minds that felt totally natural.

"Playing with John Handy, the alto saxophone great, was almost like a continuation of that lunch-hour jam in the Indian recording studios with the soprano and alto saxophone players," Hussain explains. "Those influences in India gave me some sort of a platform to launch myself into these interactions. It fitted right in with my first interaction with an American jazz musician."

So comfortable, in fact, was Hussain playing with Handy that they even toured as a duo.

Another American jazz musician with a deep interest in Indian music and spiritualism was John Coltrane. Coltrane too, was drawn to Shankar, buying his records, and even studying with the sitar maestro for a short time. Though Coltrane's music never went down the path of Indo-jazz fusion per se, he was fascinated by the structures and moods of the raga form, drawing on the melodic and rhythmic concepts within.

Coltrane, in turn, influenced a young English guitarist who was developing a deep and abiding interest of his own in Indian classical music and philosophy. His path and Hussain's were soon to cross.

California Jam

Hussain and John McLaughlin's paths first crossed early in 1972 when they met in New York City. McLaughlin would take Hindustani vocal lessons with Hussain at The House of Musical Traditions on St. Mark's Place. A little over a year later, the guitarist's barnstorming band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, played a benefit concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with McLaughlin donating the proceeds to the Ali Akbar College of Music, where Hussain was teaching. The next time McLaughlin was in California, in the winter of '73, he was invited to dinner by Ali Akbar Khan.

After the meal, in Ali Akbar Khan's living room, McLaughlin suggested that he and Hussain might jam. In a 2020 interview with All About Jazz, McLaughlin recalled the encounter:

"The thing is... the jam was amazing! Playing with Zakir [for the first time] was like playing with Tony [Williams] or Billy Cobham, but he was sitting right next to you. It was a beautiful feeling, and it was with acoustic guitar. After that, I said to myself, 'This is one of the most amazing jam sessions I'll ever have.' And Zakir thought it was pretty amazing, so it was really only a matter of time..."


A short time later, once the first incarnation of Mahavishnu Orchestra had burned itself out, McLaughlin's premonition came to pass when he launched Shakti with Hussain, violinist L. Shankar and ghatam player T.H. 'Vikku' Vinayakram. It was a groundbreaking group in concept and thrilling in performance.

The marriage of northern Hindustani and southern Carnatic music was something new for a start but coupled with McLaughlin's jazz-inflected playing at breakneck speed—on acoustic guitar—it's safe to say that Shakti broke the mould.

The band's first album, Shakti: With John McLaughlin (CBS, 1976) also featured Shankar's uncle, Ramnad Raghavan, on mridangam, though he never toured with the band. The music was a revelation. Brilliant instrumentalists all, and very much attuned to each other, this live recording from Southampton College, Long Island, in 1975, veritably explodes with dazzling unison play, breath-taking soloing and a relentless rhythmic churn of galloping intensity. The crowd's spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm only add to the heady atmosphere.

Shakti, however, might never have got off the ground at all, as record label CBS was not entirely enthusiastic when first presented with the demos, as Hussain recalls.

"They were wary of Shakti for obvious reasons. Mahavishnu Orchestra was selling a million records and suddenly John McLaughlin just drops that and wants to do Shakti. It was hard for the record company to accept that their Golden Goose had been taken away from them."

The music also confronted CBS with a marketing headache, Hussain relates: "I remember when we delivered the master to Clive Davis at the CBS office and he said, 'So John, what do we call this music?' John was like, 'What do you mean, what do you call it? It's us doing music together.' Clive said, 'We need to put it in a bin [a genre classification -Ed] in a record shop, under a label.' At that time there was no fusion bin, so CBS had to figure out how to market it, what to call it."

No doubt CBS would have preferred another stadium-filling rock band from McLaughlin, but as Hussain well knows, once the English guitarist's musical mind is set on a course, there is no going back.

"What an amazing strength of conviction this man has," says Hussain of his mentor and friend of fifty years standing.

"What he believes in he goes after with open arms. He is not afraid to abandon ship without a lifeboat under him. John has always been that way. A leap of faith is taken, regardless of whether it means good business or not, because it is going to nurture him. That was such an inspiration to see and learn from," says Hussain, with obvious admiration.

"It was his strength of conviction, his confidence in our ability as musicians that allowed, on that day in Clive Davis' office, for Shakti to actually become Shakti and make two more records and do tours and play hundreds of concerts."

Almost inevitably, some jazz critics found it hard to accept the music on its own terms, lamenting what they saw as an inexplicable curve ball from John McLaughlin. After all, the guitarist's legend had been sewn in the electric jazz-rock of Tony William's Lifetime and on seminal Miles Davis fusion albums such as In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and Tribute To Jack Johnson (Columbia,1971).

This was the man whose Mahavishnu Orchestra had set a new bar for virtuosity—and volume—while shifting albums by the truck load. Why had he unplugged and tuned to Indian classical music?

CBS weren't the only ones who didn't know what to make of Shakti. There had been nothing like it before. And, some might say, since.

"It was the beginning of World Music," states Hussain. "Before, there was no such thing. I remember Shakti playing a concert at Montreux Jazz Festival [in 1976 -d] and in the wings were Chick Corea, Jaco Pastorius, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul and they were looking at us like, 'What the heck are these guys doing?'

Of course, it was McLaughlin who was in the firing line from the naysayers. "John bore the brunt of whatever criticism came his way from jazz critics and fellow jazz musicians," affirms Hussain, "but he plowed on and we followed in his wake and became richer in our experiences."

Playing many of the world's major stages, Hussain recognizes, shone "a little bit of spotlight" on the other musicians.

"George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the world and I think that in a smaller way John McLaughlin brought L. Shankar, Vikku Vinayakram and Zakir Hussain to the world. He was instrumental, along with Mickey Hart for my visibility in the world of music at large," notes Hussain.

Audiences the world over loved Shakti. "The audiences were digging it because there was this interaction that they had not seen. The kind of interaction that Shakti showed from the first hit of the rhythm... there was eye contact, there were smiles, and you saw spontaneity blooming right in front of you," Hussain explains.

"In the world of jazz, you did not visually see this interaction and spontaneity—you heard it. Shakti was that band where you could see the ecstasy of the music arriving at these beautiful moments. The four musicians were clearly in love with each other and with the music and totally supportive of each other. That connection was something that the audiences really enjoyed and thrived on."

After its live debut Shakti produced two studio albums: A Handful of Beauty (Columbia, 1976) and Natural Elements (CBS, 1977). Fine albums both and boasting plenty of the exhilarating interplay that was Shakti's stock in trade, they have certainly stood the test of time. But as Hussain acknowledges, the stage was Shakti's true home.

"It was kind of hard to replicate on record because part of the magic of whatever occurred live is lost. That may have been somewhat of a handicap for Shakti. It was purely a performance band and shared that beauty on stage; the audience was allowed to be a part of that. The audience would go home knowing they were part of something that will never happen the same way again."

As Hussain puts it, Shakti's records sold "reasonably well, compared to a jazz record," but not enough to satisfy the folk at CBS. After a little over four years together, McLaughlin was effectively forced to call time on Shakti in 1978. Hussain describes the pain it caused his friend.

"I remember one afternoon, John had tears in his eyes, and he said, 'I have to. I have no choice.' I think that was one of the principal reasons that he decided he didn't want to stay in America anymore. Europe understood the music and gave it the kind of status and stage that it deserved, which was not happening in America."

Strangely perhaps, the original Shakti didn't make it to India. Hussain explains: "What was interesting was that L. Shankar, Vikku Vinayakram and I wanted to establish ourselves as Indian musicians in India first, build our foundation before we let people see samples of what else we do." Unfortunately, for Indian fans of Shakti, the band disbanded without playing a single gig in India.

Shakti did reform for a brief Indian tour in 1982, with Larry Coryell subbing for McLaughlin, whose arm was in plaster following an accident. "Thousands and thousands of people came to hear us playing," Hussain recalls.

They were the last concerts Shakti would play for another fifteen years.

Remember Shakti

When McLaughlin and Hussain decided to rekindle the old Shakti flames in 1997, they did so as Remember Shakti, with McLaughlin on electric guitar. Intermittently, in the ensuing years, Remember Shakti has convened to the delight of audiences, and it is no surprise that the three albums the band released between 1999 and 2001 were all live recordings.

Hussain and McLaughlin are the only remaining original members. Hariprasad Chaurasia, Vikku Selvaganesh (son of T.H. Vikku Vinayakram), vocalist Shankar Mahadevan and mandolinist U. Srinivas have all graced the band. Srinivas, the brilliant five-string electric mandolinist, died unexpectedly in 2014 aged just 45, from complications following a liver transplant. It was a terrible shock that took the wind out of Remember Shakti's sails.

"We couldn't bring ourselves to play again because Srinivas' death was a great shock to all of us," Hussain laments. "After that we all choked. How could we go on? People suggested we ask his brother to pay with us, but to have another mandolin player would have made it emotionally a very difficult experience."

To most people's surprise and great delight, Remember Shakti rose again in January 2020 for gigs in India and Singapore. "Even now there is kind of an audience for Shakti similar to the audience for Grateful Dead," says Hussain. "There is an audience that wants us to tour India every year."

For this latest incarnation of the band, McLaughlin, Hussain, Selvaganesh and Mahadevan have been joined by violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan—the band, as ever, a study in continuity and evolution.

"Music must travel forward and adapt itself to the needs of the day, while maintaining that umbilical cord connection to what was," explains Hussain. "It's about who we are, where we came from and where we are headed."

Taking The Lead

It had taken a while, but finally, in 1986, Zakir Hussain recorded his first album as leader. Making Music was released the following year on the ECM label and featured John McLaughlin, Hariprasad Chaurasia and Jan Garbarek. It is a truly beautiful album—lyrical, tender and passionate—and an undoubted highpoint in Hussain's discography. Hussain is rightly proud of Making Music, but reveals that he had to overcome his own self-doubts to make the dream a reality.

"Oh my god! I never imagined I had that ability in me," Hussain exclaims. "I had played on twenty-five or thirty records already in a fifteen-year career at that point, but I had shied away from making my own. I couldn't imagine looking John McLaughlin, Hariprasad Chaurasia or Jan Garbarek in the eyes and actually tell them what to do. Come on! These are legends! Masters! These are people who I have always admired and tried to emulate. I'm just a tabla player. That confidence was not inside of me."

Hussain credits L. Shankar for encouraging him to make an album as leader, but he still needed a shove to get over the line. "My wife joined in the chorus and because of her confidence in me I agreed to do it," Hussain relates. It just remained to ask the three musicians he had in mind to bring his music to life. They agreed, which took Hussain by surprise. "I was shocked when they said yes. I was like, 'Oh oh! Now I have to do it.'"

Hussain describes bringing skeletal ideas, melodies and a bridge to the studio, but was reluctant to impose too much form and direction on the development of the music. "We sat down in kind of a circle and we just played. The arrangements just evolved," explains Hussain. The title track, for example, was a one-time take, but the album as a whole has a wonderfully organic, free-flowing feel.

In some ways, Making Music was a turning point in Hussain's trajectory as a musician.

"The confidence that those musicians showed in me, the love and affection, helped to build inside of me the idea, that, yes, I belong in this kind of world," Hussain reveals. "I would have to say that Making Music is my prom. It is a record of some reckoning."

Rising Star, Feet On The Ground

In the 1990's, in addition to frequent collaborations with Mickey Hart, Hussain found himself courted by more and more jazz musicians.

He began the decade playing in a duo with Joe Henderson in the Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, and in the following years he went on to recorded with George Brooks, Pat Martino and Pharoah Sanders. Yet despite the higher profile in jazz circles, and despite bringing the tabla into new spaces and to new audiences, Hussain remains humble with regard to his influence and his place in evolving traditions.

"I am credited with taking tabla that step further where it needed to go, but others also deserve the credit. One soldier advancing against a whole country doesn't work, but a whole battalion going forward—the impact is different. It's not just me alone. It's Swapan Chaudhuri, it's Anindo Chatterjee and Kumar Bose, and so many others."

Hussain acknowledges the collective efforts of the previous generation of tablaists like his father, Alla Rakha Khan, Samta Prasad and Kishan Maharaj in elevating the status of the tabla, both nationally and internationally, and for providing a platform for the following generation of tablaists to go forward.

"We didn't have to fight against the tabla being a third-class instrument in Indian classical music, which my father, Samta Prasad and Kishan Maharaj had to fight against. Their names wouldn't even appear on records..."

Hussain explains how the support for great tabla players by revered musicians like Ravi Shankar, Ai Akbar Khan and Vilayat Khan resulted in the inclusion of tablaists' names on records and concert billboards for the first time. "Ravi Shankar took it a step further by allowing the tabla player to have a solo on stage," Hussain expands. "When my father took a solo the audience was in rapt attention, so a certain amount of status came upon the instrument and made my job infinitely easier."

Hussain also recognizes his simple good fortune to have been in the right place at the right time—San Francisco, "the junction where everybody came," as the '60s gave way to the '70s.

"I happened to be young, and I happened to be the only tabla player available. All the great tabla players, like Shankar Ghosh, were in India. I got the stage, the connections and the spotlight," Hussain happily admits.

"I mean, it could just have easily been Ustad Vilayat Khan, the sitar player, instead of Pandit Ravi Shankar. Ravi Shankarji was here, Monterey Pop happened, George Harrison noticed and came over to study with him. If it was Vilayat Khan who was playing Monterey Pop things may have been different."


In the mid-2000s, Hussain embarked on another musical adventure, in the trio Sangam, with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland.

"Charles Lloyd has always been a freeform improvisor, like Pharoah Sanders, and he would open up a scale and explore it from all angles. Sangam arrived because that exploration was done by the trio," Hussain explains.

"Charles saw in me and Eric Harland the ability within us to not just be drummers and tonal supporters. I mean, he had no bass guitar, he had no piano, no regular guitar to support him harmonically, but that wasn't an issue. He made sure that the tones of the drums were supportive enough and he could ride that tonal bed on his instrument and create these melodic flowers and beautiful bouquets. And at the same time, he tapped into us and poked us to be harmonically involved with our voices, which was something unusual for me, so that in some ways, in an acapella form, with our voices and his horn, we were able to create this triad of harmonic connection."

Hence the name, Sangam. Sangam is the confluence of three great rivers in India: Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati, which meet in Allahabad. Every twelve years, tens of millions of pilgrims gather there for the Kumba Mela, and dip in the waters to wash away past sins.

Sangam's eponymous debut (ECM, 2006) may be the trio's only recording to date, but Hussain still recognizes the importance of the group as a stepping stone in his musical development.

"So, there was the element added in my ability as a musician which was the voice, which was not there before. And that in some ways prompted the way I actually played with Charles. That was a revelation for me and a big learning experience," Hussain acknowledges. "It further advanced my quest to be a tabla player with not only rhythms and patterns, but also tones and harmonics, and in some ways melody."

A World of Possibilities

Hussain's awareness that the tabla had much greater sonic possibilities than those he had grown up with as an Indian classical musician, first blossomed in him in the cultural melting pot that was San Francisco's Bay Area in the early '70s.

"I came across great maestros here in the Bay Area, of Afro-Cuban music, Nubian music and gamelan orchestras of Indonesia. And of course, I was in close contact with great drummers. Tony Williams was somebody I saw regularly, and Billy Cobham. I heard Elvin Jones a lot, I heard Max Roach a lot, and all that mix was there. All these drumming traditions used and advanced understanding of the tonalities of the instrument," explains Hussain.

"In other words, they not only had focus on the repertoire that the instrument represented, but also what the instrument itself is capable of. In India we were taught to play this repertoire that had existed for two thousand years as best as we could on the instrument, and therefore, our relationship with our instrument was that.

"But arriving here and seeing this melodic approach to the instrument by Armando Peraza, the Afro-Cuban conga player of the Santana band who played five congas, and how he melodically and rhythmically used them, or Hamza El-Din, of Nubia, who took a simple instrument, a frame drum like a tar—one single-membrane instrument—but got these incredible tones out of it by just moving his hands to various parts of the instrument, and how soft and how hard he worked his hands on the instrument. It was a revelation. It made me think it may be possible on the tabla as well," says Hussain, recalling the roots of his opening up as a global musician.

"I started to try and transpose techniques of the congas and the bongos and the frame drum and the drum set into my tabla, and in some ways emulate that kind of playing. That's how it began, but it didn't evolve into a formal system of addressing the tabla until almost the mid-'80s."

The Tools of The Trade

Considering the advances in technology, science, and acoustics since Hussain first started to play tabla as a child, it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn that the tabla, and tabla playing, has evolved significantly in the intervening years. As Hussain explains, the relationship between tabla makers and tablaists is a symbiotic one— they each push the other to continually refine their skills.

"The young players playing now are about forty to fifty per cent stronger and faster than we ever were. It's a jaw-dropping thing to watch. But I am sure that my father and his contemporaries said the same thing about Swapan Chaudhuri, Anindo Chatterjee and myself. It's like that and it always will be," acknowledges Hussain.

"It's like the four-minute mile; fifty years ago, breaking the four-minute barrier was considered impossible, but it happened. Similarly, with tabla, the technique, the strength of execution and the speed has developed and advanced and it has sparked a reaction in the making of the instrument.

"The role of the dynamics has become quite important. In the old days, microphones were limited, and before that there was no amplification at all. The tabla was hard, it was strong, but there were no dynamics. There was one level of playing, until you played alone," Hussain explains.

"But now you have the amplification available, you have all the frequencies, from very low to very high, which can be arranged in the proper balance so that people can hear every element of the instrument the way they should. It allows the tabla players to be subtle, it allows them to use the tonalities of the instrument that much more expansively, bringing notes, bringing scales, bringing textures...

"When the tabla maker sees all that this he thinks, 'Oh, I can advance this a little further. Let me change the layer of black paste so that you are able to get a little bit more of that texture on it...,'" says Hussain, referring to syahi, the mixture of mucilage, flour, water and iron fillings that makes up the tuning paste. Applied to the tabla's stretched skin, its weight alters the resonances of the instrument.

"There has been a team effort over the last forty years between the young tabla players, including myself, and the tabla makers," Hussain adds. "So, a lot of advancement, a lot of development and a lot of thinking to get the instrument close to the point of its full potential."

Kindred Spirits

If striving for the full potential of instruments and of musicians depends on mutual collaboration and innovation, then the same is true of music itself. If music remains hermetically sealed off from outside influences, then it can quickly become a museum piece. The entire history of jazz, which has always sought new alliances and innovations—though not without a few feathers flying—is a case in point.

Hussain too, has always embraced new musical avenues, from the Indo-rock of Shanti in the early '70s, via Shakti, to the heady genre mash-up of Bill Laswell's rhythmically driven Tabla Beat Science, and from Indo-jazz to his own classical concertos for tabla and sitar.

One project more than most, however, underlined the links between seemingly disparate musical cultures. In 2011, Hussain was invited to Celtic Connections in Glasgow in a celebration of Indian and Scottish music traditions. The story, however, as far as Hussain is concerned, goes back to his childhood days in Mahim, Mumbai.

"When I was eleven or twelve, we lived near a shrine, a Sufi saint shrine, and once a year there was a huge, ten-day celebration of the birth of that Sufi saint. The street would be blocked, and many stalls and shops would be open, food and drink, you could buy anything you want. And every day there would be a procession that would come and would bring offerings to the shrine. That procession was led by a band, a group of people called Pathans." [Hindustani for Pashtun -Ed]

Hussain recalls the music the Pathans played in the processions. "The instrumentation of this band was bagpipes, whistle, frame drums like a bodhrán and another like a Punjabi drum, a dhol, and a shehnai-like instrument called totaa. The leader of the band played totaa, and of course, the bagpipe held the drone.

"They played a kind of music that sounded like folk music from the northern parts, and also some elements of Maharashtra and Punjab and all these states. Some of the tunes were very unusual and that's what I grew up with. Sometimes I would play along with them because they were my father's friends."

The Pathans, Hussain explains, have traditionally inhabited the frontier lands between what was then Indian (now Pakistan) and Afghanistan, near the Khyber Pass— historically, an important link in the Silk Road and an outpost of the British Army in colonial times.

Fast-forward several decades to Celtic Connections. Hussain arrived in Glasgow with flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and violinist Ganesh Rajagopalan, where they joined with bagpiper Fraser Fifield, fiddlers Patsy Reid and Charlie McKerron, flautist Jean-Michel Veillon, bodhrán player John Joe Kelly and guitarist Tony Byrne.

When first assembled, Hussain asked his hosts to kindly honor them with a tune. They began to play a tune—bagpipes, whistle and bodhrán. "My jaw dropped," relates Hussain. "I started singing the tune along with them and their jaws dropped. They said, 'Where did you hear this?' And I told them, 'I heard this when I was twelve years old.' And I told them about this band."

Chatting with the musicians, Hussain learned the British Army stationed in Peshawar had a band that interacted with local musicians. Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English musicians would jam with the local tribesman.

"Tunes kind of crossed ways together at night," Hussain explains, "once the killing was done for the day. They made music together and out of that emerged hybrid versions of these tunes that had both Indian and Celtic elements."

The musical meeting of Indian and Celtic traditions that took place in Glasgow was a resounding success. "There were no fences," says Hussain. "You can hear how the [Indian] violin and the flute fit right into what is happening in the Celtic world. There was no attempt by either of us to change anything—we just played together, and that for me is the best way to make music."

So taken was Hussain with the chemistry between the Celtic and Indian musicians that he arranged a tour, which culminated in the brilliant live recording, Distant Kin (Moment Records, 2015)—another indispensable entry in Hussain's discography.

Branching Out

In recent years Hussain has embarked upon several exciting projects, not least of which is the trio Crosscurrents, with Dave Holland and Chris Potter, whose debut album, Good Hope (Edition Records, 2019) seems to signal the start of another special musical collaboration.

At the beginning of 2020, there was the release of Is That So? (Abstract Logix) with John McLaughlin and Shankar Mahadeven—a sublime rendition of bhajans (devotional songs) notable for McLaughlin's harmonizing of linear lines.

Hussain marvels at the breadth of McLaughlin's John McLaughlin's musical vocabulary. "He's a South Indian musician, he's a flamenco artist, he's a blues musician, a jazz guitarist, he's a rock guitarist—he's all that in one, in a way where when he dons a certain hat, it fits. There must be an intertwining of these worlds that together creates the knot that we all are tied together," Hussain insists. "John is a brilliant example of it."

So too, is Hussain. In the past half century, he has jammed with rock musicians, blended with Celtic folk musicians, explored global rhythms with the world's greatest percussionists and graced records by the likes of George Harrison and Van Morrison.

Hussain's devotion to classical Indian music has never abated, but internationally he has perhaps become known to a wider audience through his jazz collaborations. Despite high-profile collaborations, Hussain remains a remarkably humble figure.

"I was so lucky that I played duo concerts with Joe Henderson, Pharoah Sanders and then Charles Lloyd. I consider myself so blessed to be playing with them, and when I was younger playing with Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan—these great maestros! I mean, what the hell did I do to deserve this blessing? I thank my lucky stars to be where I am."

And Miles To Go...

In 2017, at a star-studded gala evening, Hussain was honored by the San Francisco Jazz Centre with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Now as then, Hussain remains a little overawed by this accolade from such a prestigious jazz institution.

"It's mind boggling for me to even be considered in that way," Hussain admits. "I'm a little kid in the world of jazz and for them to bring me to that level where I'm sitting on the same stage and have these great musicians chime in and talk about me as if I'm one of them, it was like, 'No, this is not possible. It shouldn't be,' says Hussain.

"It is a very humbling honor to be included in that group of people, but at the same time, like my father used to tell me all the time, 'Just try to be a good student, don't try to be a master and you'll get by just fine.' That really is true. Every day is a learning experience, and this award is an acknowledgement from my peers that I am being a good student and that I'm taking small steps forward in the right direction."

Hussain knows, however, that with music the learning never ends. "I have still to go further," he affirms. "The horizon is still far away, and it will never be touched. One must continue that journey and move forward."

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Meet Abe Goldstien
Read Herbie Hancock: An Essential Top Ten Albums
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Read Bill Charlap's Stardust

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