What a treat to see and hear three master musicians, each at the top of his game, playing together as one. Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain - on banjo, double bass and tabla, respectively - brought a packed Lucas Theatre audience to its feet time and again over the course of a 2 1/2 hour Savannah Music Festival show March 30.
It's easy now to understand why these guys titled their jointly written concerto The Melody of Rhythm. In Hussain's hands the tabla - four tuned drums that are played with the fingers, palm and wrist - becomes much more than a percussion instrument. In concert, Hussain deftly dove in between the melodic lines of the other instruments. His tabla was as intricate to the progressive melody as the banjo and the bass.
As percussion, Hussain's tabla can be a herd of galloping horses in one moment, a cascade of falling raindrops the next. In tandem with Meyer's exquisite bass runs, the tabla looped, drilled and ran as the undercurrent, and Hussain's multi-colored solo moments were breathtaking.
The bass towered at least a foot over Meyer's head. He's a tall man, with long arms and large hands, and at times it appeared that he was delicately sawing a huge tree in half; then, he'd be delicately listening for the instrument's heartbeat.
Alternately bowing and plucking the strings pizzicato, Meyer used the full range of the bass, from the low booming notes to the cello-like midrange, to the higher register wherein it sounded like a viola. He was never still, and he never seemed to play the same thing twice.
Each piece took the audience on a journey; unlike the earlier Savannah Music Festival concert featuring African guitarist Lionel Louke and a string section, the music felt natural, alternately inspiring, intriguing and soothing. It all flowed together exceedingly well.
Fleck has taken the banjo so far from its origins as an Appalachian dance-band instrument, it's hard to imagine a time when it didn't "belong" in other styles of music. He plays it like a harp, like a guitar, and in the case of some dazzling interplay with Hussain in the concert's second half, like a sitar. His song "Happy Drum Drum Monkey Girl" incorporated element of blues, jazz, classical and - yes - even bluegrass.
(Without a nod or a wink, Fleck injected a few strains of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" - the very song that got him interested in the banjo as a young man - into one of his free-form solos.)
The three musicians showed an easy rapport with one another, joking around between songs and injecting humor into the proceedings. The concert was, as Fleck explained recently in these very pages, "esoteric with warmth and joy."
(On this page you'll find a video of the trio performing "Happy Drum Drum Monkey Girl" at a 2010 concert.)