The advantage of instrumental music is that there is no need for lyrics to create the drama; throw in an entire orchestra and a fulfilling experience becomes richly evocative. The Melody of Rhythm is a dramatic landscape musically enabled by Ustad Zakir Hussain (tabla), Béla Fleck (banjo), Edgar Meyer (double bass), and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin.
The story goes that Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, who’ve been partners in music for over 25 years, were approached by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to produce a triple concerto (composition comprising three instruments). Meyer and Fleck knew right away that they wanted to collaborate with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain.
The resulting album has nine tracks evoking various moods, starting with Hussain’s “Bahar” (spring), where Meyer’s bass seems to herald the season with the drone of bees. Fleck’s strumming on the banjo feels like a slow blossoming of flowers; the tabla’s percussive wind blows warmth through the entire piece. The pace starts out slow, like the trio is just getting to know each other, gradually building chemistry akin to Indian light classical music. In the final minute the incessant rhythm ends in an unexpected mid-tone.
“Out of the Blue,” arranged by all three maestros, introduces us to an eight-note refrain that appears in several octaves, in different speeds and combination of instruments. The beginning has the feel of a lazy classical musical doodle, when out of the blue the pace just picks up, with the trio giving it their all. They go on to create a homogenous sound, the bass blending with the high notes of the sitar-like banjo, the tabla aiding and abetting both in its two-toned sound.
BélaFleck’s “Bubbles” that comes next is a frothy mix of African beats and Indian raga influences. This is perhaps the smoothest of all the sans-orchestra pieces, with a jazzy feel. Béla astonishes us with the myriad sounds the banjo can be coaxed into producing. At times it sounds like the sophisticated sitar, at times its expression is basic, like the Indian folksy ektari; at others, he takes the American country music plucking style to new heights.
The three “Movements” that follow are powerful, and the Detroit symphony orchestra sounds joyful to be playing with this trio. What’s evident from the get-go is that in their arrangement of this music, the trio have consciously chosen not to create an amalgamated sound. They have taken pains to give each category of instruments, especially the airy flute, its own place in the musical map.
Movement 1 is a flurry punctuated by the tabla, a soaring flight of the orchestra arrested by the sudden tease of the banjo-bass-tabla trio. It cascades into a lonesome bass sound revived by the joyful string and tap of the other two instruments. Movement 2 has the feel of a period battle movie. We work from the middle of a plot to a flashback evocative of an innocent romance. At times it feels like a familiar Indian classical piece. The composers have used the power of the orchestra to give the austere raga style some body. Movement 3 is a relay and overlay of rhythms, sounds and short melodies.
“Cadence” is short and warm. The trio sound glad to get back together. True to both th
e titles of song and album, the track explores cadences in rhythm and melody in a deliberate fashion. “In Conclusion” is more like a spontaneous jamming; at one time, the double bass plays to a slow rhythm in contrast to the furiously-paced tabla; the peace between the two kept in a strum by the banjo. In the concluding “Then Again,” Meyer gives space for individual ruminations by each artist. Hindustani music aficionados will have fun in this piece keeping track of the sum, the start of each rhythmic pattern. In many of the tracks, Meyer produces high notes on his double bass, a rare treat; if you didn’t know it was a double bass, you’d think it was a violin.
The highlight of this album is its ability to surprise you with its wide and varied sound-scapes, regional influences, musical genres, and original refrains. Indeed, when asked to comment on their experience working together, the three artists concurred that since each is a composer with a distinctive style, their music together was all the richer.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, and jazz genres. She has had training in Indian classical music and continues being a student in spirit.