A jazz improv lab class in a medium-sized room. The tune is Thelonius Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” and it is the drummer’s turn to solo. To the delight of his bandmates, he plays the main melody through all the changes without accompaniment. Never had I beheld such melodic drumming ‘til I heard The Melody of Rhythm by Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, and Edgar Meyer. Hussain’s work on tabla here speaks to the strong connection between the two necessary elements of music: so strong one begins to wonder if “melody” and “rhythm” are just two names for the same thing. The title-track three movement piece at the center of the album featuring the Detroit Symphony Orchestra creates tension like ten cups of coffee and release like Swedish massage therapy. It sounds like the nexus of Aaron Copeland, Ravi Shankar, and Igor Stravinsky. It is, like Barack Hussein Obama, deeply American and global. Fleck’s banjo is understated and overstated, busy and tranquil, cramped and spacious. Meyer’s bass seems unconcerned some may draw lines between popular, folk, and classical music. This is chamber music, foreground music, intricate music to listen to closely. And the closer you peer, the more the album reveals. Overtones sail at of nowhere and settle in the corner of the room. A rhythmic idea that only lasts a measure or two creeps into the corner of your ear and lays eggs. The blues thump and moan from the double bass.
The use of Eastern instruments like tabla or sitar on Western recordings can come across as a cheap ploy to sound “deep,” but on The Melody of Rhythm, Hussain follows Fleck’s banjo and Meyer’s bass closely, heightening their melody lines towards greater and greater clarity. His rapid successions of meaningful notes sound like what the melody instruments would play if the Fleck and Meyer had a couple extra hands. You wonder: Why there isn’t a genre of traditional music that employs these three instruments? Then: Who’s to say they didn’t just invent one? I know of no rule that says traditions cannot start in 2009, so I do declare this album is the beginning of a new tradition of music.