On paper, the line-up of Béla Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on double bass and Zakir Hussain on tabla suggested that it might provide an unusual twist on a regular guitar-bass-drums trio. However, this Barbican audience was lucky enough to witness far more than that as these masterful musicians stretched to breaking point any assumptions about the role each instrument would play.
Meyer took on just as much of the melodic content as Fleck with some beautifully singing arco lines encompassing the full range of the double bass, while Hussain’s show-stopping contributions were as lyrical as they were percussive. For his part, Fleck demonstrated just what a versatile instrument the banjo can be (in the right hands), incorporating rapid-fire bluegrass picking, articulate bop guitar lines, and bluesy bent notes into his vocabulary.
Like all successful types of fusion music, this collaboration went far beyond a mere copying-and-pasting of the various genres associated with each of the musicians. It was a subtle synthesis of different musical worlds, resulting in something distinct in its own right. Hussain’s composition ‘Bahar’ exemplified this, transiently incorporating elements of Indian classical music, Americana and baroque, but refusing to rest in any one idiomatic area. A deeply atmospheric and sometimes melancholic vein ran through the music, but the dry banter between the musicians—and Fleck’s virtuosic showmanship—consistently lightened the mood.
Fleck and Meyer’s partnership spans over 25 years, and their mutual understanding was obvious through phrases that effortlessly intertwined and breathed together with barely a single glance exchanged between the pair. In contrast, the interaction between Hussain and Fleck relied more on visual cues, but produced some spectacular results. On ‘Bubbles’, Hussain picked up on the rhythmic intricacies of Fleck’s improvised lines and framed them almost instantaneously with his responsive tabla accompaniment. Fleck showed just as much awareness of Hussain’s musical universe, finding seemingly infinite ways to divide up the metre and occasionally eliciting some sitar-like timbres from his instrument.
The sophisticated and poised music created by this trio may give the industry a headache trying to classify it, but having put the audience under its spell for the best part of two hours, sticking a label on it seemed rather beside the point.