April 26-29, 2009
The Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain is probably having his best week of the year. Hussain is visibly proud of being able to present his tabla skills over four nights at Carnegie Hall, three times in its smaller Zankel Hall, and then climaxing on the main stage with a final jazz-orientated performance. The Perspectives concept (this is a decade-old tradition at Carnegie) is to invite a varied set of collaborators, thereby making each concert a distinct experience. Hussain is successful, as each evening possesses a markedly different character, making completist attendance anything but a trial. The first gig inhabits the traditional raga repertoire of North Indian classical music, in partnership with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, the santoor player. This is a type of hammered dulcimer, not dissimilar to the concept also shared with the cimbalom and the qanun, wherein a multitude of tuning-temperamental strings are stroked and struck by a pair of spatulas. Hussain and Sharma have been playing together for around four decades, so it's not surprising that they enjoy a noticeable rapport, delicately weaving a path that begins with a graceful alap by Sharma, evolving into a heady ricochet dialogue between the two, reaching repeated peaks before the authentic conclusion finally arrives.
Hussain still retains a remarkable air of youth and vitality, as he rapidly approaches sixty. Sharma has a more meditative, slightly introverted aspect, which is well suited to the rippling cascades that he creates on his 86-stringed santoor. It's hard to believe that this instrument was once frowned upon as a potential interpreter of the repertoire. Now, after many years of Sharma's virtual single- handed persistence, it seems eminently well-suited, particularly as he's modified it, increasing the string-spread. Sharma has effectively devoted his entire playing life to the instrument, since he was 17 years old, back in 1955 (he too looks much younger than his years!).
The second evening features the regularly-touring Masters Of Percussion, and allows an opportunity for true drum-obsession. Hussain gets this started with what he announces is his only chance during these four nights to take a tabla solo. It's an often flabbergasting demonstration of his technique, but like much of this particular concert, it suffers from a lack of self-editing. When Hussain begins his bol display (this is the tabla-talk, where vocal syllables are matched to drumhead sounds), it's initially compelling, but ends up being overdone, beginning to sound like an extended workshop session. Surely the first half is almost over, and jazz drummer Steve Smith must be thinking this too when he enters, as if to announce that time is running out for the ensemble's other three percussionists. Smith is perhaps surprisingly attuned to the Indian classical form, mostly playing with light sticks or brushes, very delicately bouncing around his skins, and capitalising on their tuned sensitivities. His Vital Information might be renowned for their hard-surfaced fusion, but Smith has been busy studying the Indian classical form.
Hussain and Smith engage (briefly) in a fruitful dialogue, but the gig's major problem is now becoming apparent. When four master percussionists are combined, what's expected is surely some kind of extended group exploration, particularly when they're arriving from such different musical traditions. A suspicion arises that such compatibility is not easily attained, as the second set begins with a long solo by the Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo, followed by a similar run from the South Indian T.H. "Vikku" Vinayakram, demonstrating the extremely wide- range of his clay-pot ghatam. Three-quarters of this combo have played together as part of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum project, and the Grateful Dead drummer is indeed present in the audience. During the sporadic sections where all four percussionists actually play together the dialogue appears successful, so maybe the foursome simply needed more rehearsal time to properly mesh their divergent traditions into a single entity.