Ali Akbar Khan, recognized as one of North India’s premier classical musicians, took more than 2-1/2 hours to explore the depth and expressiveness of the 25-string sarod, beginning with a disjointed primer and concluding in a flurry of fully orchestrated chording against the furious and exquisite drumming of Zakir Hussain. It was an improvised journey not unlike a yoga exercise, beginning slowly with a string by string exploration, that eventually revealed the textures that have been incorporated in Western pop for more than 30 years.
Credentials alone warranted the standing ovation that greeted him before starting solo on his first number, one he described as simple, but “that takes a lifetime to understand.”
Khan’s a five-time Grammy nominee and director of his Bay Area music college since its founding in 1967; he has brought the sarod to prominence in the concert repertoire, and has long been acknowledged as a leading light in Indian music. Now 73, he has collected a diverse range of honors from a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a Bay Area Music Award to the Padma Vibhushan, India’s highest award for a citizen.
He began the evening by using a slide on the fretless fingerboard of the sarod, the main strings of which have a banjo-like sound when picked individually, to produce a series of biting, vibrato-laden tones. With a drone supplied by two unidentified performers on the tanpura, a three-stringed sitar-like instrument held vertically, a good three-quarters of the 46-minute piece felt disconnected and austere, striking in its loose assembly.
His second piece, just a shade under 50 minutes, started with a nursery rhyme-quality in the melody, and a harp-like tone. As Zakir Hussain introduced the watery shimmer of the bass tabla, Khan bounced back with quivering notes; once Hussain picked up the pace, Khan laid back within the melody and produced a series of slow, ringing tones. To Western ears, the duo was deep in the avant garde, using tuned hand drums for the ragas (melodies) and playing a meter that lacked any steady beat; too, they regularly retuned — Indian music is always in search of perfection in tone — as the other instrumentalist continued with the song.
Concert’s second half brought out more familiar textures: Much of the first half-hour of their 65-minute highly improvised song recalled the music the Beatles incorporated in “Within You Without You” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Eventually, Khan played “Greensleeves.”
Dexterity was on full display for the closing 20 minutes, as Hussain and Khan reeled off one awe-inspiring run after another.
Hussain, who counts the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, the jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson and the New Orleans Symphony among his collaborators, has an absolutely stunning presence, the blinding speed with which he performs always in line with the improvisation. The two ended the evening on a stellar, rapid run, every note rich in color and fully indicative of the inspirational power of this wildly evocative music.