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Critic's Pick: Unlikely pairings find common ground

Critic's pick

Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer

The Melody of Rhythm

McCoy Tyner

Solo: Live From San Francisco

Considering a collaborative album featuring banjo journeyman Béla Fleck, veteran Indian percussionist Zakir Hussain and pioneering bassist Edgar Meyer alongside an unaccompanied piano concert recording of unwavering spiritual depth by veteran jazzman McCoy Tyner might seem something of stylistic leap. After all, The Melody of Rhythm, the Fleck/Hussain/Meyer summit, skips heartily through fields of classical, folk, world music and more, while Tyner's Solo: Live From San Francisco is a grand portrait of bop, blues and learned jazz reflection.

On The Melody of Rhythm, the trio's conversational lightness isn't so much the product of some East-meets-West lexicon as it is a field trip across cultural common ground.

Remember, Fleck last spring released a stunning album of collaborations with African musicians that explored the banjo's heritage while Hussain, a protégé of India's most cherished classical masters, has long collaborated with British and American players. Meyer, in the meantime, still leapfrogs between classical and new acoustic projects. Last fall, he played the Kentucky Center of the Arts with the Louisville Orchestra but was in Lexington weeks later performing acoustic duos with mandolinist Chris Thile.

Even Tyner, who shifts between effortless delicacy and the brute strength of a prizefighter on Solo, embraced the craftiness that sparks frequently during The Melody of the Rhythm on his 2008 Guitars album. That project teamed the one-time John Coltrane protégé with such modern string men as Derek Trucks, John Scofield, Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and, fittingly, Fleck.

In short, these albums are adventures. For Fleck, Hussain and Meyer, the daring behind The Melody of Rhythm revolves around the triple concerto title piece, commissioned by the Nashville Symphony in 2004 but presented here on a recording with the Detroit Symphony. Much of it sounds like a movie score, with orchestral colors tempered at times by Hussain, whose playing on the resonating Indian hand drum known as the tabla gives the music not so much a beat as a pulse. By the time strings and reeds match the percolating pace established by Fleck and Hussain, the orchestration's calm center dissolves. The piece then moves through Frank Zappa-like fancy into stormy crescendos.

The remaining five pieces are shorter trio exercises with an attractive spaciousness. Out of the Blue, for instance, offers numerous thrills in the ways its pace and mood shift among the three instruments — particularly from the tabla's spiritual punctuation to the banjo's inherent giddiness. The concerto is dynamite. But these trio pieces sparkle with even greater immediacy, invention and depth.

Such traits also run rampant through Solo, which Tyner cut in 2007 (he was 69 at the time). And, yes, the playing is fearsome in places, as in the blasts of typhoon-like intensity during the finale of Sweet and Lovely. Even the Duke Ellington standard In a Mellow Tone is beefed up with modal-style gospel at points. It's like swing on steroids.

But listen to Ballad for Aisha and the long-heralded Coltrane hymn Naima — tunes that have been in Tyner's repertoire for ages — and you hear a more sagelike spirituality. There are no bandmates about, but the music's embedded soulfulness remains contemplative and, above all, complete.

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