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)

The band represents not only a stylistic convergence, but also the meeting of disparate regions: Potter grew up in South Carolina, Hussain hails from Mumbai and Holland is a native of Wolverhampton, in the West Midlands of England. But much unites these three titans.

Potter, in a phone conversation while touring in France this summer, said the common purpose and creative drive of any group of musicians come from “a knowledge of the history of jazz, an interest in different musical languages and rhythms, and a willingness to learn new systems of playing.

“That’s well within the aesthetics of this group and where our music is coming from,” he continued. “Ultimately, it’s about the ability to play, sound good and be able to navigate the music. But on a deeper level, music is about sharing an experience, the generosity of the musicians and the desire, through music, to make something that’s bigger than any single one of the participants. All of us in the trio approach music this way and feel like we’re making a musical statement that is coherent from all sides. It’s also an expression of the joy we share in the process.”

Along with musical cultures, a bridge between generations exists in the Crosscurrents Trio. At 48, Potter is the junior member of the trio, and acknowledged that working with elders like Holland, 72, and Hussain, 68, puts him in a unique position to gain artistically from their experience. “It would be very foolish of me not to pay attention to how they do things and learn from them,” the saxophonist said. “It’s a healthy situation. A big part of this music is how the masters teach the younger players, so being able to be part of that process means a lot to me.”

For Potter, a particular thrill in performing with the trio is that it basically grew from playing his previously unrecorded anthem, “Good Hope,” which he termed “a pretty simple tune” that nonetheless helped foster a special vibe among the threesome.

“All of the music we’re playing is great, and the different ways of approaching each song can really be heard within this small sonic environment—and I wouldn’t call it limited, because the amount of sound that Zakir can get out of his tablas is like an orchestra,” Potter said. “But there is a finite palette of sound with just three people and three instruments.

“The music in this trio is sparser, and because of that you can hear the details of all the instruments in [new] ways. Like, if Dave is playing with a drummer who is really hitting it hard, you might not notice some of the subtle things that he’s doing, which really stand out in this context. So, in this case, you really get to hear how different sonically [Good Hope] is from a typical jazz record. As far as its aesthetic is concerned, though, it has that intimate feeling of whatever jazz is.”

Hussain initiated the Crosscurrents project in 2015 during his first season as resident artistic director of SFJAZZ with the intention of spotlighting the effect jazz has had on Indian musicians in India. Being the son of tabla master Alla Rakha allowed Hussain to experience the cross-pollination of the genres early in life, and later on he participated in two of its most acclaimed modern manifestations, both released in 1976: saxophonist John Handy’s Karuna Supreme and pioneering fusion guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti.

“We always talk about Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan [the world-renowned sitar and sarod players, respectively] traveling around the world and influencing jazz greats like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin, and rock stars like George Harrison, but those kind of crosscurrents actually started way before the 1960s,” Hussain said during a phone call from his home in California’s Marin County. “Hollywood musicals and big bands arrived in India during the 1930s and received a great deal of attention from audiences there. It wasn’t long before a whole bunch of musicians in India basically devoted themselves to jazz, alongside the Indian music they were learning, and took all of this new musical information to the Bollywood film industry. So, this was something I really wanted to acknowledge, because I felt it had been overlooked. My idea was to bring some jazz maestros from India and combine them with jazz maestros from here and pay homage to the Indian music created from the influence of jazz musicians from this part of the world.”

The first Crosscurrents band was a quintet that featured Hussain and Holland with keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Louiz Banks, sometimes referred to as the “Godfather of Indian Jazz,” plus guitarist Sanjay Divecha and Bollywood vocalist Shankar Mahadevan. The group soon grew to include a drummer—first Eric Harland and Vinnie Colaiuta alternating in the drum chair before Gino Banks, Louiz’s son, took it over. After a string of initial concerts, Potter was then brought into the band on the recommendation of both Holland, in whose quintet he been working since 1998, and Harland, another frequent collaborator.

Asking Holland to play bass in Crosscurrents from the onset was an easy decision to make, Hussain said, because they’d played together in the early 2000s in a band that Herbie Hancock assembled. Hussain was more than aware of the bassist’s long connection with, and in-depth knowledge of, Indian music.

“Dave is such an incredible rhythmist,” Hussain said. “Playing with him, I never have to worry about the groove being just right—he knows exactly how the rhythm needs to be laid down.”

As for Potter, Hussain called the saxophonist “a fabulous rhythm player who can learn any melody on the planet and then improvise on it.” All in all, what makes the Crosscurrents Trio “click,” the percussionist said, “was that we have enough confidence to take the music—tempos, solos, everything—anywhere we want.”

An abiding, nearly lifelong interest in music from around the world characterizes the members of the trio and helps explain the rapport that exists among them. For Hussain, that meant devouring the jazz and rock records his father brought back from his tours with Ravi Shankar. The landmark album Rakha made with Buddy Rich in 1968 served as a template for Hussain’s own work with Western musicians, first with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and later with Jan Garbarek, Yo-Yo Ma, Béla Fleck, Bill Laswell, the Kronos Quartet and a long list of others.

Holland became enthralled by international sounds once he moved to London in 1964, paying close attention to sitar and sarod players at concerts. “The improvisatory nature of Indian music, along with its highly developed scale forms, were particularly interesting,” Holland recalled. “Of course, The Beatles and John Coltrane helped further expose me and others to Indian music and culture.”

Potter, too, connected to Indian music early on. Recognizing its importance and the necessity to be adept in its rhythms soon after he moved to New York as a 19-year-old phenom, he regularly woodshedded to duo recordings that Hussain and Rakha made together. Being invited to perform at the memorial event Barsi was a defining moment in his career, the saxophonist said.

Edition Records released Potter’s trio album Circuits (recorded with Harland and pianist James Francies) on Feb. 22. When the Crosscurrents Trio had finished recording Good Hope and was looking for a label, the indie operation based near London was the band’s unanimous pick—much to the satisfaction of Edition founder Dave Stapleton. He noted the trio’s collective emphasis on presenting a unified musical message during a time of growing xenophobia, and tremendous discord around immigration and border security, adds poignancy to the project.

Imagine a jazz trio with few precedents furthering peace and harmony while balancing magnificently on the high wire of improvisation.

“Music represents that neutral ground where we all come together, see who we are and what our differences and similarities are,” Holland said. “It’s one of the areas of hope that I cling to when I see some of the things that are going on. The effect that music has on people with this group or any other group that represents unity and coming together—when it touches people, you feel it. The music takes them away from the ‘us and them,’ the fear of the other ... . You start to realize that we’re all members of the same family, and we just have to figure out how to get along and help each other have better lives.” DB

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