BWW Review: CROSSCURRENTS at The Balboa Theatre
Jazz fans were at San Diego's Balboa Theatre to see Chris Potter, one of the best sax players in the world, and bass-playing legend Dave Holland. But why was half the audience in saris?? Well, the other five musicians in the Crosscurrents band are from India, and some of them are far better known in San Diego's Indian community, not to mention India itself, than either Potter or Holland.
The fans of both jazz and Indian music got their money's worth. The concert was almost three hours long, and engaging all the way. The last time I saw Dave Holland, the group he was in played for about half as long. I commented to the young sari-clad woman sitting next to me, "Three hours. That's pretty unusual." She said, "That's nothing. I grew up watching three-and-a-half hour Bollywood movies."
So--do jazz and raga mix well? They do. Both prize improvisation on a theme. Though Indian music is often based on scales and complex rhythms unfamiliar to most Western listeners, that's fine with master musicians such as Potter and Holland. They look for ways to extend expressive range, and jazz fans are receptive. Two of the hottest players in the U.S. now are alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, and pianist Vijay Iyer, both sons of Indian immigrants, both at or near the top of recent prestigious jazz polls.
Crosscurrents is led by bassist Holland and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. The group is rounded out by Potter, vocalist Shankar Mahadevan, guitarist Sanjay Divecha, pianist Louiz Banks and his son, drummer Gino Banks. Hussain received a huge, affectionate ovation when he came to the stage. He responded with relentless bubbling energy throughout the evening. "Shadows," an up-tempo instrumental by Potter, opened the set and quickly established the group's mix of jazz and Indian rhythms driven by infectious interplay between tabla and Gino Banks' drum-set.
Hussain once said, "Jazz first came to India by way of the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s and quickly influenced the music of India's burgeoning film industry." As a result, many Indian musicians have absorbed American jazz styles, and Crosscurrents includes some of the best of those musicians.
"Rama Rama" brought Shankar Mahadevan to the stage, and he was greeted with even more enthusiasm than Hussain. Mahadevan is one of India's most prolific composers for films and became well known as a playback singer, providing the musical voice of the hero in numerous popular Bollywood movies. His assured friendly stage-presence delighted the audience. Singing in Hindi, after a slow-tempo beginning, he took off with free-wheeling, jazz-influenced improvisations that reminded me of the most foot-tapping rhythmic flights of American singer Bobby McFerrin.
Potter and Louiz Banks had many of the concert's frequent extended solo spots, Banks sounding much like a good mainstream jazz pianist and Potter his usual intense self, with added touches of Indian-inspired melody.
Mahadevan remained on stage for "Doors of Desire," written by Louiz Banks. Then the first set concluded with a sax, bass and tabla version of "Hope" which featured extended playful interplay between Potter and Hussain. In a few of the exchanges the tabla virtuoso repeated Potter's rhythmic pattern, and sometimes even duplicated brief snatches of his melody, not easy to do on a percussion instrument. Hussain was equally amazing in a duo arrangement of "Finding the Light" with Holland during the second half of the concert. Who knew an eight-minute piece for bass and tabla could be so much fun?
Mahadevan really got the audience rocking and clapping rhythmically in the second half with a couple of popular Indian tunes, familiar to most of the audience, if not to me. At times "Radhe Rani" and "Eena Meena" suggested that rock has influenced Indian music and guitarist Divecha as much as jazz has.
Hussain fans wouldn't have left happy without an extended tabla solo, and he obliged with close to ten minutes that had the audience swaying and smiling. My smiles were mixed with occasional sympathy pains in fingers and palms.
The entire group was back for a closing medley of "Encounter" and "Breathless." The latter was Mahadevan's first big hit recording. His romantic tenor again bookended fine solos, this time by everyone in the band.
As the musicians took a bow, I could see the evening had finally exhausted Hussain. But, an immediate extended standing ovation demanded an encore. "Maa," a beautiful ballad written by Mahadevan for a popular Indian film was the perfect way to bring the concert to a satisfying close.
As far as I know, although Crosscurrents has been around for a couple of years, the group has yet to record. I'll be among the first buyers when they do. The musicians are terrific, and their mix of Indian music and jazz a complete success.
The La Jolla Music Society, has greatly expanded its variety of offerings in recent years. Visit their website to see what else is on the schedule.
Photos compliments of La Jolla Music Society.