Interview: Zakir Hussain Discusses Collaborating With Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mickey Hart & More

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For decades, tabla master Zakir Hussain has entertained audiences around the globe with his virtuosic playing. The renowned classical Indian musician has shared stages and recording studios with many of the top performers from a broad range of genres. Regardless of the setting, Hussain brings a signature rhythmic playing style that has long made him among the most sought after percussive collaborators.

This week, Hussain will embark on a tour with banjoist Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer. The run of shows will see the talented trifecta dazzling audiences in the Midwest and West Coast throughout October. The trio initially came together in 2006 to co-write Triple Concerto For Banjo, Bass And Tabla, which they performed with the Nashville Symphony. The three acclaimed musicians earned a Grammy nomination for their 2009 album The Melody Of Rhythm which came from a 2009 performance with the Detroit Symphony of the concerto and new original pieces.

Fleck and Meyer are two of the many musicians the 68-year-old Hussain has collaborated with over his career that dates back to the 1960s. One of Hussain’s regular and longtime musical partners is Grateful Dead/Dead & Company drummer Mickey Hart. I recently spoke to Zakir about his trio tour with Fleck and Meyer and what Hussain and Hart have in the works.

JamBase: What sparked this upcoming run of shows in October that you’re doing with Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer?

Zakir Hussain: Well Edgar Meyer, Bela and I have worked together for some years now. The first time was when we were commissioned as a trio to write a concerto for a symphony orchestra, which was the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to open their new concert hall.

So that’s how we actually came together. About, I don’t know maybe seven or eight years ago, and after that, we’ve done about three maybe four tours off and on in different parts of the world. But we haven’t done any new tours in some time. And I think that’s probably because we hadn’t yet had time to work on a new project ourselves.

We finally got some time together — from our various different projects that we’ve been doing — to sit together and make a new recording. The idea of recording kind of started this thought process that maybe we should tour and play together and get cohesive as a band once again before we finish the recording.

So that’s what sparked this tour. And the other interesting thing for us was the opportunity to work with a bamboo flute player from India Rakesh [Chaurasia] — and he is such a fine musician and fits so well with this trio and with the quartet it was almost like this combo was inevitable.

We are getting together mid-September in Nashville to sort of start preliminary work on our recording, as well as do some rehearsal, then go on the road and periodically come back to Nashville through the tour to work on a song or two songs and continue the tour and then finally finish the album.

JamBase: Nothing’s been recorded for the album yet?

ZH: No. Some ideas have been thrown back and forth. We’ve done some rough ideas. I’ve put some stuff down in my home studio, and Bela has his, and Edgar and Rakesh, and we’re all sort of assembling those to see what kind of musical statement we can make together and come up with a kind of music that presents a unified statement from the four of us.

JamBase: That sounds exciting. Will any of that new material be incorporated into the shows in October?

ZH: Absolutely. Because of Rakesh‘s arrival, it has required that we should have material that brings him into the band. We are writing new stuff. Rakesh is contributing too. I’ve written a tune or two and so has Bela and so has Edgar. So we’ll have all that, plus we’ll have material that we’ve already showcased on tour and in our previous record. So we’ll have a whole portfolio of material to showcase on this tour and hopefully while we are touring some new stuff will come up.

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JamBase: Will that come about through improvisation? Will there be room for spontaneous playing?

ZH: Well, I mean Bela being a musician who has worked quite a bit with jazz musicians like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke – people like that. He’s got a deep understanding of jazz improv. And so does Edgar Meyer having worked with musicians in the same genre – bluegrass – where they do solo and stuff. Me and Rakesh have been brought up in the Indian system, which is based primarily in improvising.

So yes, 50 to 60% of the concert will have spontaneous input from all four of us coming in. And therefore each tune that we play every day will have a fresher look. And at the same time, while in our discussions about all our traditions, other ideas may emerge while we are riding the bus to the next venue and might spawn a riff or a tune or a pattern that will inspire another new song. So yes, all those are possibilities.

JamBase: As we’ve discussed, all four of you have fairly diverse backgrounds. How would you describe the music that you guys make to somebody that’s never heard the three or four of you play together?

ZH: OK. Well, what’s interesting for me is that my instrument, Bela’s instrument which is banjo and Edgar’s which is bass, they are all not only melodic instruments but also rhythmic instruments. There is this interesting tie in between the three of us and that, in a way, necessitated that Rakesh should be brought in to have some kind of an interesting high-end melody coming through our supportive environment. So that’s one thing.

Secondly, since we all have an improvisational background it allows us to be able to pivot and twist into different lanes and byways of the musical town or city — for lack of a better description — and find our way to the same square at the same time and sit and enjoy our union together. I mean, this is more a visual analogy of what the music will bring. I mean, this is more a visual analogy of what the music will bring.

One thing I’ve noticed, these great musicians, be it George Harrison or John McLaughlin or John Coltrane or Mickey Hart. Jerry Garcia. Carlos Santana. You name it. Charles Lloyd. Bela Fleck. Edgar Meyer. These are musicians who are established, top-shelf artists of their genres of music, much-touted, revered in their world. But it hasn’t stopped them there. Their thirst to be able to find more knowledge, to find another way to be able to express their music, to widen their horizon has always been a catalyst in their need to be able to find a source.

George Harrison went to Ravi Shankar the Indian sitar player. So did John Coltrane. John McLaughlin went to a player in Wesleyan. Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer came to me. I went to John McLaughlin and Mickey Hart. And so these are sort of, how should I say — homages, you know? Trips that we make to a source to be able to advance our way of understanding of music and see if there’s a new way for us to be able to tell the same old story.

And that thirst of knowledge brings musicians from all over the world together with each other to be able to explore further. That’s exactly why we are together, to be able to discover further that even though we all represent different traditions, at the core of it all, the notes are the same 12 notes and the rhythm is the same house — 4/4 or 6/8 or 7/4 — it’s just for us to understand in our mind that we are not so different from each other.

JamBase: That’s terrific and it sounds like the shows are going to be pretty exciting for the fans that get to see them.

ZH: It’s great. Each one of us are very open to each other’s musical space and are really happy to accommodate any idea that comes forth. And at the same time, for musicians who are open to a new path to follow, it’s not a problem if we’ve rehearsed something and instead end up doing something else – that’s great.

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JamBase: You’ve mentioned a couple of times your old friend and longtime collaborator Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and Dead & Company. Have you seen him lately? Do you have anything in the works with him?

ZH: Well, we started working on a record before he left for Dead & Company tour. Now that he’s back it’s time for us to get together and finish it. It has a lot to do with with a more refined, new, state-of-the-art version of The Beam, which is one of Mickey’s main joys and modes of expression on stage.

The record is to feature The Beam and the drone and see how that collaborates with percussion and rhythms and how they can coexist in a very fluid and floaty environment. That’s the kind of record we are working on and it’s just basically been him and I so far. So today we will take stock of where we are and then start in the next week or two doing some more addition to where we left off and see where we go with that.

JamBase: Well, I certainly can’t wait to hear what comes of those recording sessions …

ZH: I have to tell you that so far the sonic experience of what has been put down is mind-blowing. Mickey is such a sonic junkie. He has to have the best possible tone and sounds coming out of the instrument and his quest has always been to find the most unique and up-to-date way of being able to capture those sounds that the instrument is making. It’s not only playing the music but also learning in his company the length and breadth and depth of what kind of soundscape that an instrument puts out and how to be able to best experience it. It’s really a very special time when that happens.

JamBase: It seems like you two have a special collaborative relationship …

ZH: It’s been 47 years that we worked together. The first was in 1971 and our relationship and friendship has only strengthened over the years. I thank god for his presence in my life, and he, of course, is one of my mentors and I’m looking forward to getting this record done and for people to enjoy it.

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