I would have written this review earlier but I am just now getting my breath back after Sunday, October 29th’s “Crosscurrents” concert at the Balboa Theatre. I cannot easily recall a more overwhelming musical experience.
The concert resembled the perfect gourmet meal with seven discrete and complex courses, combined perfectly and served fresh and piping hot. The marvel of the outcome was that each course maintained its distinctive character and flavor but was subsumed into a gestalt that was significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
This was fusion at its finest. One of the seminal notions of post-modernism is aesthetic genre-bending or blending while hoping to achieve a new and serendipitous outcome. With Crosscurrents, the main influences were North and South Indian music with sophisticated straight-ahead jazz. A precursory glance at the personnel and mission statement portended intense complexity, which turned out to be a characteristic of the outcome but not the most memorable one.
The failure of many fusion attempts generally results from a perfunctory blending of material that has not been deeply understood or studied from the get go. At least two of the musicians, keyboardist Luiz Banks and his drummer son Gino Banks, appeared to actually be masters of both jazz and Indian music.
Luiz has been referred to as the “Father of Indian Jazz,” a moniker that I was not familiar with. His son demonstrates a deep fluency with both idioms and creates an impressive blend of both to bear.
Their apparently overwhelming accomplishment was almost dwarfed by the utterly outrageous virtuosity of singer Shankar Mahadevan, one of the capacity crowd’s clear favorites. Mahadevan was a known quantity to the large Indian contingent, and his quotations of Bollywood favorites were met with spontaneous and unanimous applause. He was often the composer and/or soloist on the original sound tracks and was deeply cherished by the crowd. I have never heard vocal
improvisations even approaching Mahadevan’s in creativity: stunning, micro-tonal pitch inflections; phrasing and breath control. In India, the man is simply known as “The Voice.” No argument here.
The putative leader of the band is an equally astonishing musician, tabla legend Zakir Hussain who established his authority and credibility with a deft touch. Seeming to create an entire percussion orchestra with his ten fingers and limited percussion setup, Hussain was the perfect host and master of ceremonies for this ensemble of hyper-virtuosos. It was obvious to any sensitive listener that everyone on stage looked to him
for direction and inspiration: his deep classical training and profound musical wisdom provided a creative nirvana. EVERYONE was provided solo space and allowed to shine, and NO ONE was allowed to be overshadowed by the irrepressible greatness emanating from each of the seven musicians. And Hussain conducted these electric energies to a nearly mystical perfection.
The jazz side of the equation was supervised by legendary bass giant, Dave Holland. That Holland has taken part in or created some of the most important and fascinating combinations in jazz over the last fifty or so years is a given. That he and his equally adroit companion saxophonist Chris Potter were able to deliver on the Indian-music component only elevated my already considerable estimation of their skills.
Obviously, throwing an upright bass and a tenor/soprano saxophone into the volatile admixture of Indian singer, tabla, electric guitar (Mumbai native Sanjay Divecha), piano/keys and traps could have
easily come out like a proverbial fish with feathers. Analyzing how it came out so perfectly has posed quite the challenge. Besides the normal signposts for musical success – good compositions, mastery of form, strong artistic perspectives and humility in face of the music – there was another ineffable element that can only be characterized as inspiration. All seven of the musicians were ready for whatever the muses had to offer, and they were on fire, prepared to launch into the exosphere – which they did. I’m still gasping to come to grips with the evening and its spectacular results.
A special mention needs to be made regarding the soundman. I was unable to make his name out when he was introduced, but apparently the gentleman was brought over from India. His clarity, balance and the complete absence of technical, sonic issues was remarkable.
To the best of my knowledge, unfortunately, there is not yet a commercial recording of the band. One can only hope that this virtuoso ensemble is professionally documented in the very near future. It is the musical equivalent of lightning in a bottle.
The evening’s program:
- “ Shadows”
- “Rama Rama”
- “Door of Desire”
- “ Hope”
- “Chembur Funk”
- “ Finding the Light”
- “Radhe Rani”
- “Eena Meena”
- Tabla Solo