Symphony Center Presents Jazz
At Orchestra Hall
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—East met West at the Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert Tuesday night. A group of seven American and Indian musicians who have been touring the country for months gathered to perform an amazing concert called “Crosscurrents.”
Some of the concert was in the modern jazz idiom, much in the Indian tradition, and some a hybrid. The capacity audience also was a hybrid of sorts, with a large percentage of the attendees of Indian heritage. It was obviously a major cultural occasion for people with roots in the subcontinent, and stylish saris were everywhere.
The joining of Indian music with American jazz isn’t as far fetched as it may sound. While the instruments and musicology differ, both traditions rely heavily on improvisation. The “Crosscurrents” band is co-led by American Dave Holland, the grand master of the upright bass in jazz, and Zakir Hussain from India, who plays small Indian drums called tablas with a virtuosity and a musicality that is beyond astonishing.
The other American in the group is saxophonist Chis Potter. The remainder of the Indian component consisted of singer Shankar Mahadevan, keyboard player Louiz Banks, his son Gino Banks on conventional drums, and Sanjay Divecha on electric guitar. The musicians may come from different artistic backgrounds but they demonstrated a sympathy and compatibility that never flagged.
The concert ran two hours with no intermission with very few announcements or explanations from the stage. The music flowed from piece to piece without identification, performed by groupings from duo to full ensemble. But at no time did I feel lost because I wasn’t fully informed about the music. The skill set of the musicians swept away all impediments to enjoying the program.
The concert opened with Holland and Hussain accompanying Mahadevan in a long vocal piece sung in some Indian dialect. I had no idea what the lyrics signified but the singer cast a spell with his expressive, wide-ranging voice accompanied by fluid hand and hand gestures that reminded the listener of the hula. It was an amazing trio performance. Holland and Hussain melded together in rhythmic and melodic support of the singer that made a literal understanding of the song superfluous.
Chris Potter and the Indian rhythm section then came on stage, with Potter in superb form on both the soprano and tenor saxophones. Throughout the concert, he played long flowing lines, sustaining his solos chorus after chorus with a consistency and intensity that surely places him among the top jazz reedmen on the current jazz scene.
The backbone of the “Crosscurrents” band obviously is the Holland-Hussain partnership. Holland has a rich sound that translates into vivid solos as well as impeccable rhythm support, whether he was bowing or plucking the strings.
But the night belonged to Zakir Hussain. H sat cross-legged on a Persian carpet draped over a small platform, with assorted small tabla drums arranged in front of him. The drums were individually tuned to different keys and timbres. Hussain induced an entire orchestra of sounds with finger and hand movements that were mesmerizing, the fingers moving with blurring speed from drum to drum to create scintillating sheets of sound.
Hussain must be the greatest living tabla virtuoso because it’s impossible to imagine anyone who could do more with the instrument. His digital dexterity is incredible enough but the stamina is equally impressive. The muscular condition of his hands and arms must be off the charts. He never showed a glimmer of fatigue, presiding over his tabla set with an effortless skill combined with a genial stage presence. He looked like he could have played all night without wavering in energy or inspiration.
Mahadevan even joined in some instrumental numbers using his voice for rhythmic accents like a horn player. The concert succumbed to Western jazz tradition by giving drummer Gino Banks a long thunderous drum solo that could have profitably condensed its 10+ minute duration to three or four minutes before the listener’s mind started to wander.
The music in the concert may have been unfamiliar in sound and instrumentation for much of the audience, but it was always accessible and never leaned on exoticism to capture the listener’s interest. The rhythms were continuous but never monotonous. The program deftly shifted from one style to another, ranging from Mahavedan’s pure Indian songs to a romping 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll number led by a big Texas tenor solo from Chris Potter. Guitarist Sanjay Divecha was just as comfortable in the world of such American jazz guitarists as Joe Pass and Kenny Burrell as he was in the sounds of his native Mumbai.
For me, the “Crosscurrents” concert was a revelation. I hadn’t been exposed to much Indian music, certainly not in a jazz context. What I heard was artistry of the highest order, and in its own way it swung liked crazy. Chris Potter is definitely an A list saxophonist for our time. And as for Zakir Hussain, what else is here to say?
Two more concerts remain in the 2017-2818 Symphony Center Presents Jazz season. On May 18 there will be a double bill of combos, led by drummer Antonio Sanchez and trumpet player Terence Blanchard. The season closes on June 1 with singer Dee Dee Bridgewater celebrating the jazz legacy of her hometown of Memphis, and an appearance by the current incarnation of the Count Basie Orchestra.
For information or tickets, call 312 294 3000, visit cso.org/jazz, or order by mail at Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Subscription Services, 220 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60604. May 2018
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