Every time the expert Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain takes to the stage, he dazzles, regardless of the context. He has appeared at UCLA in numerous bands over the past several years — in Shakti, with a sitarist, as a member of fine jazz ensemble led by saxophonist Charles Lloyd that just released the invigorating live album “Sangam.” Thursday night was a celebration of the drum. And once again, he dazzled.
Following an homage by Bhavani Shankar to the rhythm god, Hussain set to work with a trio of Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi (a bowed instrument that produces a sound somewhere between the viola and an adult wail) and fellow tablaist Fazal Qureshi. The first of two lengthy ragas began with a mournful melody from the sarangi; on the second piece, Khan worked a six-note phrase, alternating accents and note durations while keeping it purposeful as the composition’s backbone.
While the improvisations varied, Hussain and Qureshi approached each piece in a similar fashion. They soloed around the sarangi, creating a dialogue that’s neither melodic nor rhythmic until they found a meeting ground; from there the two operated as a singular voice by playing together or by jugalbandhi — feeding lines to each other in a seamless, rapid-fire call-and-response. They concluded at a super-human speed, blurring hands and making the listener’s heart race.
Hussain, at times, seems to be producing four distinct notes at a time, notes that, in Western notation, would be written on the bass and treble staffs. And he takes time to clue in the audience, stating “train” at one point and adding the sound of a whistle to his already chugging rhythm. Later he says “rain,” and as the drops fall on the roof he adds wind and booming thunder to the sonic palette.
First half of the evening closed with the three dancing drummers of Manipur, who employed the movements of martial artists and the Temptations. Their presence turned the music folky and communicative, less interested in flash than communal grounding. Even before sitarist Niladri Kumar entered for the second half, Hussain had effectively communicated via two different vocabularies — Hindustani classical and folk music — with astounding clarity.
Hussain, Lloyd and Eric Harland will perform June 22 at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.