Live review

Zakir Hussain & Masters of Percussion at the Royal Festival Hall (EFG LJF 2021)

Zakir Hussain & Masters of Percussion
(Royal Festival Hall. 21 November 2021. EFG LJF. Review by George James)

Sabir Khan and Zakir Hussain. Photo credit Emile Holba

As befits a legend, a large and enthusiastic crowd thronged the RFH for a concert melding the accrued global percussive wisdom of centuries with the warmth, wit, empathy and humanity of Zakir Hussain and his cohorts.

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And not only the percussive wisdom of centuries; it was perhaps something of a masterstroke to commence proceedings with a long and emotive sarangi solo by Sabir Khan. Superficially resembling a dwarf Chapman Stick and played with a bow, on this evocative instrument Khan demonstrated the same qualities as his colleagues throughout the evening: complete mastery of touch, texture, nuance and dynamics, acute awareness of what else was being played, and a willingness to take the lead or assume a supporting role according to that.

The first half was in fact a duo performance by Hussain and Khan, with Hussain helpfully explaining the premise behind each new section of the pieces from the Indian classical music tradition they performed. If anything is more impressive than Hussain’s right hand, it’s his left hand ; specifically, his ability to extract a wide tonal range from the lowest-pitched of his three tabla (the bayan) and then to manipulate those tones with the base of his palm. And impressive as his bursts of speed were, perhaps the most magical moments involved savouring the range of sounds he was able to coax from each drum.

In addition to his remarkably deft touch, Hussain’s mental acuity was apparent in repeated phrases in varying rhythmic sub-divisions over fixed-length cycles (secured by Khan), a standard feature of the Indian classical tradition but still bewildering to most western ears and minds. His genial and informal manner when performing such complex material under such scrutiny in such a venue is testament to the lifetime of study and performance he’s undertaken, the results of which it was a privilege to be able to observe.

L-R: Marcus Gilmore, Sabir Khan, Zakir Hussain Abbos Kosimov. Photo credit Emile Holba

When joined by American drummer Marcus Gilmore and Uzbek percussionist Abbos Kosimov after the interval, Hussain seemed somewhat effortlessly to direct what appeared to be largely improvised ensemble sections with rehearsed rhythmic motifs as endings, usually in the form of a tihai. Gilmore – grandson of Roy Haynes and one of the major contemporary jazz drummers of our time – demonstrated his trademark self-control and creativity, although with a larger kit than usual which comprised 3 rack toms, 2 floor toms, a low-pitched 18″ bass drum and crisp snare. The house mix and general RFH acoustics were not however kind to this battery of toms, with the sound engineer (perhaps understandably) choosing to privilege the tabla and indeed Kosimov’s frame drums over them. Even during Gilmore’s lengthy solo feature, they were somewhat overwhelmed by the bass drum (which, admittedly, did sound great). Gilmore had the patience to commit several minutes to a simple right hand ostinato on rack tom 3 whilst improvising with his other limbs, followed by several more minutes with his feet engaged in another ostinato. Here and elsewhere, his fondness for using a heel/toe technique on two different hi-hats with his left-foot was in evidence. A brief foray with brushes gave a tantalising glimpse of riches never to be fully revealed.

After Gilmore’s understated story-telling, Abbos Kosimov provided crowd-pleasing entertainment with each of his 3 doyra (frame-drums) in turn, and ultimately all 3 together. Holding up each drum (a single-headed sphere) whilst playing it with the fingers of both hands, his showmanship was appreciated by the crowd at least as much as his musicianship and technical ability.

After a particularly long and stunningly climactic tihai, the quartet received a rapturous ovation and returned for an encore in which Khan – to gasps of surprise – revealed that he has a great voice. Spiritual and beautiful, with the percussionists eventually weaving their magic around it, the song was such a perfect ending to this extraordinary evening that no-one called for another encore. Nothing could have improved upon it.

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