The all-star world jazz ensemble Facing East, performing at the Skirball Cultural Center on Thursday night, featured drummer Jack DeJohnette, woodwind specialist Paul McCandless and guitarist Paul Bollenback among its personnel. But, for many in the audience, it was Indian tabla player Sandip Burman who was the real center of attention at the fifth of the Skirball's six free Sunset Concerts.
Seated in the center of the ensemble, a radiant smile on his face, Burman kicked off the program with a whirlwind display of the solfege-like syllable singing that is at the core of Indian classical drumming. The sounds and rhythms came so fast, with such precision, uttered with such a visible sense of joy, that both the crowd and the other players were utterly spellbound.
In another piece, Burman announced that it would be played in a rhythmic cycle of 8 1/2 beats--not exactly what one frequently encounters in Western music. He then continued to describe how the meter would be subdivided at various times in the piece--17 beats in one place, 4 1/4 time in another, etc.--reacting with mock surprise when someone asked if he was kidding. Proving that he was not, he led the ensemble through the thorny passage of rhythms with such ease and enthusiasm that, by the time the piece was over, 8 1/2 beats didn't seem all that unusual, after all.
Burman's co-leader, flutist John Wubbenhorst, is a longtime student of Indian music, and his interaction with Burman was a stimulating, interactive flow of ideas, often filled with intricate twists and turns. Moving from C flute to alto flute to the Indian bansuri flute, Wubbenhorst also revealed first-class jazz skills, occasionally driving his bansuri lines with a hard-driving swing rarely heard on the instrument.
Orbiting around Burman and Wubbenhorst, the other players filled in the gaps, occasionally struggling to keep up with the music's complex demands.
DeJohnette was superb in his solo work, executed with a sensitive ear for the fine tonal nuances of percussion, and his duet improvisations with Burman were as technically adroit as they were witty and engaging.
McCandless, playing oboe and soprano and sopranino saxophones, soloed effectively; Bollenback initially survived and finally triumphed in some of the more unusual rhythmic segments; and bassist Steve Zerlin added a dependable foundation to the musical mix.
* Next week's final Sunset Concert features pan flutist Damian Draghici. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free admission. (310) 440-4500.