In an exhibition of intensity that’s rarely seen in performances on the sitar, Shujaat Husain Khan gave a masterful display of exactly how personal the connection can be between man, instrument and tradition.
In more than two hours of music-making spread over two sets, Khan and tabla master Zakir Hussain treated a full house to expansive improvisational journeys that were trance-inducing one moment and jaw-dropping the next, a full run of the dark and light qualities of Indian ragas.
The droning qualities of the sitar were the first sounds emphasized by Khan, performing without percussion. Once Hussain entered the picture, the music got spectacularly more vivid. Intriguingly, neither musician followed the other; instead they operated side-by-side as equals, and once they built up the speed on their instruments, the musicianship was simply astounding.
Khan’s highly personal style involves a considerable amount of note-bending that bridges his improvisational runs and adds a little sting to each series of improvisations. Khan, recognized as a Northern Indian classical virtuoso, has been a visiting professor at UCLA’s school of enthomusicology since 1996.
Last week, the school launched a label and made “Shujaat Khan Legacy” its first release. Previously, his best-known work was with the group Ghazal, which made two arresting albums for Shanachie. And in the second set Saturday, the lightness of that album’s ragas permeated the mood of the music.
For his part, Hussain was an absolute delight, sparking musical dialogues with drumming interludes that bobbed and weaved with the melody. His tuned tablas provided extra depth to the music at every turn, giving his speedy runs a wide sonic range and at one point slowly echoed the sensation of cascading water. Hussain is always an invigorating performer, seemingly light years away from his work with Ravi Shankar and the Indian-jazz fusion unit Shakti, yet never showy or out of step.