The first time banjo legend Béla Fleck, tabla master Zakir Hussain, and double bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer got together to make an album, it was to write, not to play.
Fleck had met Hussain at a workshop where, as Béla put it, “I thought Edgar and I could learn a lot from him.” Later, when Fleck and Meyer were looking for a third partner for a triple concerto they had been commissioned to write to mark the opening of Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, they thought of Hussain, who wanted to learn more about orchestral writing. The result was The Melody of Rhythm (2009), recorded with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. “We tried to write some pieces that took the melodies and compositions in the concerto and developed them into different areas,” explains Fleck. “But we really hadn't performed at all.”
It wasn’t until the three began touring to promote the album that the trio’s true potential became apparent. Although each had a base in a different musical realm — bluegrass for Fleck, Indian classical music for Hussain, and Western classical music for Meyer — they shared a gift for improvisation as well as an ability to reach across musical genres as casually as neighbors might chat over a backyard fence.” When we are performing on stage, in composing mode or creating mode, we are basically having a conversation,” says Hussain. “So the music emerges as we speak.”
Hence As We Speak, an album that not only showcases the group’s breathtaking abilities as instrumentalists, but underscores the wide range of musical influences at their command. Across a dozen tracks, the group glides easily between the cerebral complexity of Indian rhythm and the gut-level groove of a funky bass line, sounding equally at home with the rigors of raga.
Adding to that magic is Rakesh Chaurasia, who plays bansuri, an Indian bamboo flute. When the trio was touring India, Hussain — who knew Rakesh through his uncle, Indian flute legend Pandit Hariprasad Chaursia — invited the younger flautist to sit in, and the chemistry was immediately apparent. “I think we wanted to see if we could do something a little more organic with just a small group,” says Meyer. “And to have somebody who plays as beautifully as Rakesh join us really opened it up to a more lyrical and melodic situation.”
“What I think is good about this quartet is that everybody has to stretch in the direction of the other people,” adds Fleck. “To me, a collaboration where nobody changes is not a collaboration. It's a mashup. And there's nothing wrong with that. But I like a collaboration where I have to learn a bunch of new things from the other people. And in this case, I'm learning like crazy.”
Few musicians in any category seem as uncategorizable as Béla Fleck. After initially making his mark with the progressive bluegrass group New Grass Revival, Fleck proceeded to take his instrument, as New York Times critic Jon Pareles noted, “to some very unlikely places.” He formed the Flecktones, a groundbreaking group whose repertoire ranged from fusion to Bach; the group celebrates its 46th anniversary this year. In addition, he has played jazz with Chick Corea, American roots with his partner, banjoist Abigail Washburn, written concertos for banjo and orchestra, and created a documentary film and album, Throw Down Your Heart, that examined the banjo’s African roots. Along the way, he has won 15 Grammys across 10 categories.
Universally recognized as the world’s pre-eminent tabla virtuoso, Zakir Hussain was practically born to play the instrument. His father, Ustad Allarakha, was an acclaimed table player and frequently accompanied sitarist Ravi Shankar; Hussain studied under his father, and made his professional debut at age 12, accompanying Indian classical musicians and dancers. Ten years later, he played on George Harrison’s Living in the Material World, and a year later joined guitarist John McLaughlin in the acoustic fusion group Shakti. He was invited by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to play on the Grammy-winning album Planet Drum, has recorded with the jazz trios Sangam (with Charles Lloyd and Eric Harland), and CrossCurrent (with Dave Holland and Chris Potter), and has composed numerous movie soundtracks.
Aptly described by The New Yorker as “the most remarkable virtuoso in the relatively un-chronicled history of his instrument,” double bassist and composer Edgar Meyer is in many ways the epitome of classical crossover. A MacArthur Fellow and Avery Fisher Prize winner, he is eminently at home in symphony hall, having recorded or performed with the Boston Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic among others; he has also composed string trios, string quartets, various concerti, and other orchestral works. He has an equally impressive grounding in bluegrass, including albums with Jerry Douglas, Chris Thile, and David Grisman, and an upcoming duo recording with jazz bassist Christian McBride. But his best-known recordings, such as Appalachia Waltz, Short Trip Home and The Goat Rodeo Sessions, draw equally from classical and folk traditions to create something uniquely American.
Like Zakir Hussain, Rakesh Chaurasia comes from Indian classical music royalty. His uncle, Pandit Hariprasad Chaursia, is widely considered the greatest bansuri player in India, and Rakesh — who started playing at age five — is deemed his most brilliant student. Not only has he mastered the techniques of Indian classical music, he has developed additional techniques allowing him to venture into other styles of playing, particularly with his crossover band Rakesh and Friends. A composer as well as flautist, he has written and performed on numerous Indian movie soundtracks, and in 2007 was awarded the Indian Music Academy Award.