JACKI LYDEN, host:

The world of music seems to have fewer and fewer borders these days. Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer are three players who regularly cross the frontiers. Banjoist Fleck has explored connections with African music. Hussain famously played his Indian tabla drums with guitarist John McLaughlin in the group Shakti. And double bassman Edgar Meyer can hang competently with both bluegrass players and philharmonic orchestras. Now they're together on a new CD, "The Melody of Rhythm."

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The trio is currently on tour and joins us now from the studios of WAER in Syracuse, New York. Welcome, Bela.

Mr. BELA FLECK (Musician): Hey, how's it going?

LYDEN: It's going great. And hello to Zakir Hussain.

Mr. ZAKIR HUSSAIN (Musician): Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: And welcome, Edgar Meyer

Mr. EDGAR MEYER (Musician): Hello, Jacki.

LYDEN: Let me ask you, first of all, about the name of the new CD. A little bit oxymoronic, "The Melody of Rhythm." We're thinking, does rhythm have a melody?

Mr. HUSSAIN: Yes, absolutely. And in case of tabla, it's a very percussive instrument, so when I'm thinking about a particular rhythm pattern, I'm also thinking story - I'm thinking a visual content. And therefore, a melodic element emerges as well. So if I'm singing a rhythm, it's almost like…

(Soundbite of singing rhythm pattern)

Mr. HUSSAIN: Where were you?

(Soundbite of singing rhythm pattern)

Mr. HUSSAIN: You know, so, the way you say it, that's exactly how you play it. So, it will appear melodically.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: There's some amazing playing on this CD, which has such a range. I mean, some of it sounded bluegrassy to me and others jazz. I just was curious, Bela, who's faster, you or Zakir?

Mr. FLECK: Zakir is the fastest.

Mr. HUSSAIN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: But you're both pretty darn fast.

Mr. FLECK: He's very kind at being willing to slow down and simplify to play with us, but he's incredibly fast.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUSSAIN: Bela is, I mean, I've always marveled at the way that banjo players can with the right hand play all these rhythmic ideas and be able to have the melodic content on the left hand come out so beautifully in time and everything. The rhythmic element of the banjo, I would have to say, is some of the fastest. Like last night, you told me, take it up a notch.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah. Right.

Mr. HUSSAIN: You remember? And after that you took it up another notch and I said, whoa, wait a minute. What's going on over here?

Mr. FLECK: And I was getting started.

Mr. HUSSAIN: And you were just getting started.

LYDEN: While you were performing he did that?

Mr. FLECK: No, I'm just kidding. Yeah.

Mr. MEYER: A lot of glorification.

LYDEN: You must have some - I mean, you're using your hands. I wonder what your signals could do. The lifted eyebrow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUSSAIN: And meantime, Edgar was huffing and puffing through all…

Mr. MEYER: Oh, yeah.

LYDEN: Well, huffing and puffing, Edgar, how do you fit into the trio? I know you do a lot more than huff and puff. Do you mediate between Bela and Zakir?

Mr. HUSSAIN: He's lord and commander.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEYER: No mediation necessary. It's just a joy to fit in between the more quicker and high-pitched instruments. You know, somebody's got to hold, you know, keep the ship going in the right direction. And so I'm happy to help.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Zakir, your father played with the legendary sitar player Bobby Shankar. Your father's name was…

Mr. HUSSAIN: Ustad Alla Rakha.

LYDEN: Ustad Alla Rakha. What did Ustad Alla Rakha have to say about the tabla's place in world music?

Mr. HUSSAIN: In the beginning, just like any old traditionalist or purist, he was a bit upset at me trying to cross over a bit and do other things. And I had to convince him that no matter what I am going to pay attention and pay dues to my roots and play in traditional music on a regular basis and not just pull away from it all the time. Then he kind of turned around and started supporting me in it. But I had to point out to him that he was the one who actually got the ball rolling when he made a record in '66 or '67 with Buddy Rich, the drummer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUSSAIN: And he brought that album home and I still remember the LP. And I said, well, you know, you did this, dad, so, it's, you know, I've got to go out there and explore it further. And then as long as I would play Indian classical music on a regular basis it was okay with him. And then finally he was, I think, quite proud of where we were going with it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HUSSAIN: When John McLaughlin and I would play, he'd come and see the concerts and comment. And at time it would be embarrassing because he'd be sitting in the front seat trying to signal me what to play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUSSAIN: And I'd try not to watch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Now, there are several cuts on the CD that the three of you do as a trio, but the centerpiece is in fact called, for the title of the album, "The Melody of Rhythm," and it's a triple concerto backed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But it's interesting, you're all three listed as composers, so I'm curious as to who wrote the melodies and who did the orchestration.

Mr. FLECK: The harder thing to collaborate one is the incredible weave of making all this into an orchestra piece. And Edgar was the guy who really had done that a lot and is an incredible composer. He was able to do it in a way and lead the way in a way that kept us completely involved at every step.

Mr. MEYER: I mean, it's a point of pride for us that, or at least it's an ambition of ours that the piece both, you know, showcased our individual voices, but also really have a voice of its own that is, you know, the three of us together.

Mr. FLECK: Right. And I have a thought that in a true collaboration, each person is changed somewhat. It's not where you just go do what you always do, but now you're doing it with these guys. It's where what the other people do changes you to some extent and you change each other. That's something you have to have a lot of good conversation for and be willing to really…

Mr. HUSSAIN: I certainly am finding a whole new approach to playing tabla patterns and stuff. And then to be playing in that environment and learning to work with, like, 70-odd musicians on the stage has just opened a whole new can of worms for me. I thought I was done and ready to retire and stuff, now I'm going to have to start practicing.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: It's not like you can throw such culturally diverse instruments as these three together and get them to sound good. We talked a lot about your collaboration, but is there any other element that you think really makes you work as a trio?

Mr. FLECK: I actually think it has to do with the fact that everybody works really hard on making a beautiful sound when they play. And everybody, you know, we've all been playing for a long time. These guys I'm playing with are the masters at their instruments. And so to me it would be almost stranger if it didn't sound good when they played together. So I think it's more about bringing your whole life essence and your experiences together and trying to make a beautiful sound.

Mr. HUSSAIN: And, also, it's meeting of the hearts, the minds, thinking alike, enjoying the same things, becoming family. That has a lot to do with it. I mean, if your hearts and minds are the same wavelength and you enjoy being with each other and hanging out, you tend to open up and have this positive energy flow that makes things somehow just happen.

Mr. FLECK: Yeah, it's interesting that that was there from the beginning. Like, from the first time we got together we felt like old pals.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Yeah.

Mr. FLECK: And our families got together almost instantly.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Yeah, instantly.

Mr. FLECK: And so it just felt like a new old friendship.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Yeah.

LYDEN: Well, we really have enjoyed the composition and good luck on the tour. I know you're doing a lot of college venues together and hope it goes well out there. Tonight, you're at the University of Richmond in Virginia, right?

Mr. MEYER: Yes.

LYDEN: Well, have an excellent time. Bela Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer, it has been a real pleasure talking to all of you.

Mr. MEYER: Thank you, Jacki.

Mr. FLECK: Thank you.

Mr. HUSSAIN: Thank you, Jacki.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The trio joined us in the studios of WAER in Syracuse, New York. Their new CD is called "The Melody of Rhythm." You can hear more from the new album on our Web site NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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