Crosscurrents Trio Brings Together Singular Musical Personalities

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Saxophonist Chris Potter (left), tabla player Zakir Hussain and bassist Dave Holland

(Photo: Paul Joseph)

A particularly compelling moment during concerts by Crosscurrents, a seven-member ensemble that world-renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain organized in 2015, would occur when the percussionist winnowed down the group and was accompanied by just two other virtuosos on stage—bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter.

Situated close together in a triangle at stage left, their direct sight lines encouraging quick, nuanced interactions, the three would serve up a Potter composition titled “Good Hope,” written several years ago but presciently apropos for the band. The song is a reference to the Cape of Good Hope, a peninsula on South Africa’s coastline commonly thought to be where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. It actually isn’t, but the song nonetheless serves as an apt symbol for the convergence of musical traditions and styles Hussain intended for his ensemble.

As a plan developed to create new music, rehearse and have opportunities to perform together, Hussain invited Holland and Potter to India, so the trio could play at Barsi, an annual Mumbai memorial concert held to honor Hussain’s late father, tabla master Alla Rakha. During January 2017, the trio rehearsed and played a warm-up show in Dubai with Indian drummer Gino Banks sitting in just before the ensemble’s triumphant appearance at Barsi the following month. As Holland, Hussain and Potter fulfilled touring and recording obligations that already were on their schedules, and as promoters became interested, the musicians remained in touch and spoke about refining the trio’s repertoire in terms of new compositions each would contribute to the project. Finally, a tour consisting of about two dozen dates that stretched from North America to Europe was booked for June and July of last year.

After a suitable pause for some late-summer relaxation, the trio met at Sear Sound in New York for two days in September 2018 and recorded the eight-song album Good Hope (Edition). Following the album’s release this fall, the band known as the Crosscurrents Trio launched a European tour Oct. 23 at the Enjoy Jazz Festival in Heidelberg, Germany.

The significance of this gathering of three remarkable artists goes well beyond its “supergroup” status, which simply promotes the aesthetic enjoyments that could result when members’ singular musical personalities are brought together. While the Crosscurrents Trio’s Good Hope truly succeeds in creating a musical statement for the kind of appreciative audience that relishes being taken on a mesmerizing journey, there is something much larger at work here. The project stands as a meaningful continuation of the dialogue between Indian musicians and jazz players, which began more than a half-century ago.

That this reinvigorated conversation transpires in a jazz trio like no other makes sense. And in an uncluttered soundscape you hear all: Hussain’s tabla playing and percussion (he also performs on South Asian hand drums called the kanjira, chanda and madal) provide a majestic tapestry of rhythms that unfurl in unrelenting waves of sound—notes, really—each touch and thump propelling the music forward. Hussain finds microrhythms within the tempos, many with unconventional time signatures, with such unerring inflection, and he responds so quickly to the musical ideas posited by his trio mates, it’s as if through precognition. Inside the grooves, Holland locks in, playing atop Hussain’s intricate beats, grounding the music or skipping ahead, similarly anticipating the movements of his bandmates, all the while maintaining melodic structures or proposing harmonic affinities. Without a chordal instrument on board, Holland covers an immense area in the arrangements, and appropriately Hussain refers to the bassist as “the spine” of the trio.

Riding atop Good Hope’s churning waves of rhythm, Potter, mostly on tenor saxophone, fills the album with one inspired and commanding performance after another—no small feat. The band stretches out: All but one of the program’s songs clock in around seven or eight minutes; “Lucky Seven,” reprised from Holland’s 2006 quintet album, Critical Mass, runs almost 11 minutes. Aside from bass cadenzas and solos, or spots in the arrangements where Holland and Hussain percolate in tandem for a minute or so, Potter “just wails,” as Hussain put it.

The saxophonist’s agile, full-bore approach allows him to enunciate long melodic phrases on songs like Hussain’s “J Bhai,” a tribute to John McLaughlin (“bhai” is Hindi for brother), and “Ziandi,” the album’s celebratory opener, which Potter penned for his trio mates (nicknamed Z and D), then launch into extended improvisations, one after another, lifting the excitement even higher.

It’s hard to imagine another saxophonist with the mastery, energy and endurance to match up as well in this setting—and pull off the entire program.

“This project took off immediately when we started playing together,” Holland said during a recent phone call from upstate New York, where he was vacationing, not far from his longtime home in the Hudson Valley. “There is such a feeling of empathy and communication between us, and when you have that existing in the music it makes things quite easy because you’re feeding off each other’s creativity, and it just spirals up and up.

“I think trio is almost the perfect combination in terms of intimacy, close dialogue and speed of communication. The lines are very direct in a trio. Obviously, that’s true in duo, too. But the dynamic of three, I think, is special, particularly in this situation. There is a certain transparency to the sound of music we’re making together. As a bass player, I found it very liberating to be playing in this context and have the kind of sonic space that a trio creates. It allowed me to address the bass in ways that are a little different than when I’m playing in a larger group or with a full set of drums and an intense kind of drum setting. Zakir is intense, but in a way that makes it easy for me to interact, have space for the sound of the instrument and also to listen.”

The simple stage setting, with Holland, Hussain and Potter just a few feet away from each other, was recreated in the recording studio, the songs tracked live without overdubs in three takes or fewer. And inside the triumvirate, the closeness supported a prodigious connectedness—as musical traditions, vocabularies and experiences stretched and were shared across those short spaces to create something both new and familiar. Since its inception, jazz steadily has grown more complex and interesting through the introduction of rhythms and musical languages from around the world, and the Crosscurrents Trio continues that important evolution.

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