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Live review: Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain at Royce Hall

October 23, 2009 |  2:26 pm

The jokes came quickly at Royce Hall on Thursday night as UCLA Live director David Sefton introduced the trio of virtuoso musicians about to take the stage. With Béla Fleck on banjo, Edgar Meyer on double-bass and tabla master Zakir Hussain, where exactly does one categorize such a seemingly bizarre mix of bluegrass, classical and Indian music?

Despite each musician's diverse background, this wasn't an evening defined by jarring, chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter genre mash-ups. In fact, what left the biggest impression was how seamlessly the three principals' seemingly disparate sounds meshed.

Of course, it's not as if the musicians had just met. Equally comfortable with pianist Emanuel Ax as he is recording with mandolinist Chris Thile from Nickel Creek, Meyer has worked with "new-grass" standard-bearer Fleck numerous times, including a Grammy-winning album from 2001, "Perpetual Motion." A collaborator with musicians such as John McLaughlin and the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, Hussain teamed with Fleck and Meyer in 2004 for a piece commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, which became the recently released "The Melody of Rhythm."

Backed by an orchestra for that album's three-movement centerpiece, this tour centered on the musicians' delicate and sympathetic interplay.

Building from a deep, plucked bass line from Meyer, the evening's opening song, "Bubbles," set the tone with Fleck's unmistakably fluid banjo, which in turn tangled with Hussain's fleet-fingered percussion in an almost otherworldly dialogue.

Sawing across his instrument with a bow for much of evening, Meyer was equally adept at conjuring rich, rustic melodies such as on the folk-adjacent "Bahar" as he was providing a deep, rhythmic anchor for Fleck and Hussain's most colorful improvisations. On the bassist's lively round "Canon," those improvisations developed into an intricate mix that flirted with free jazz.

Given the many explorations with Indian structures that have occurred in jazz's past, the evening was most rooted in that genre's tradition -- though the music just as easily slipped into bluegrass, Gypsy music and Indian raga. The last element was most noticeable when Meyer and Fleck occasionally teamed on a drone and melody combination that recalled the sound of a sitar.

But the evening's energy spiked during each player's solos, particularly with the impish Hussain's sprawling opening to "Out of the Blue," which captured a percussive frenzy akin to the Venice Beach drum circle. His fingers flying across six hand drums, Hussain energized the trio as the song expanded and closed to a double-time sprint between Fleck and Hussain that resembled an intergalactic hayride.

Later in the evening, Fleck took the lead with a fiery solo before the song "In Conclusion" that touched on bits of Japanese koto, evocative classical textures and fiery, Opry-ready picking that included a few nods toward "Pop Goes the Weasel."

"Thanks for supporting our esoteric taste in music," Fleck said with a smile at the song's close. After hearing such far-flung sounds and elements combine into such a natural and unique whole, the pleasure was all ours.

-- Chris Barton

Photo of Béla Fleck, left, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain by Ann Johansson / For The Times