When good musicians get together and jam in the worlds of pop or jazz, it’s called an exciting event. When they do it in the classical world, it’s called a crossover. As the indie mentality gradually pervades the classical music world, though, this tendency to compartmentalize is changing — to the benefit of audiences. Exhibit A: the two-hour jam session that the Phillips Collection presented Sunday afternoon under the rubric “Jasmin Toccata Project,” which involved three brilliant musicians playing and improvising together in contemporary repertory — and music of the baroque.
The combo was made up of harpsichord, lute, and zarb, a Persian drum played with the fingertips and hands over every bit of its surface, with some appearances by the santoor, a hammered dulcimer variant from India. These are not usually instruments that get to jam, much less jam together, but Keyvan Chemirani (zarb), Thomas Dunford (lute) and the wonderful harpsichord player Jean Rondeau demonstrated that they should do more of it. The instruments are beautifully scaled to one another, and both harmonious and distinct in their timbres. Furthermore, all three work in traditions that are open to improvisation.
You’d never claim that Chemirani’s own compositions — four of which anchored the program — could be confused with works by 16th- and 17th-century artists Robert de Visée, Bernardo Storace, Henry Purcell, Girolamo Kapsberger or Joan Ambrosio Dalza, whose music formed at least a point of departure for the rest of the afternoon. Dunford, the lutenist, spoke a little nervously of “normal meters” as an underpinning that Chemirani’s shifting rhythms lacked. Yet there was much common ground between the different languages: repeated figures from one instrument supporting the explorations of another as voice layered upon voice, sound upon sound.
At the end of the first half, a chaconne by Storace, wrought into a thing of wondrous virtuosity by Rondeau’s clear, unflagging, faster-than-breath playing, morphed into a long, thoughtful cadenza that kept evading resolution, opening one door after another, until its landing in Chemirani’s piece “Soudha” seemed perfectly reasonable, the road that was taken after the many that were not.
In the one 18th-century piece on the program, billed as a “Fandango improvisation on a fandango bass” by Antonio Soler, Dunford laid down a few touches of Persian-tinged filigree before moving into Spanish-guitar territory, as the music grew thicker and thicker with virtuosity until it ended with a muted whoop — from an audience member.
Although Rondeau may have been the star attraction for some in the classical world, this was really Chemirani’s show. Chemirani, a scion of a family dynasty of zarb players, has made something of a specialty of working with a wide range of musicians from different musical traditions. The zarb, as he plays it, becomes the focus of attention when it takes the stage, “speaking” under his hands and fingers, blossoming in a range of timbres. The Purcell selection departed from Dido’s lament from “Dido and Aeneas,” played on the lute, which gradually fell silent as Chemirani responded to it in an articulate flurry of sounds; when the lute entered again, the zarb pulled back, but even when restrained, it kept its insistent authority until the lute offered up a melody to return to the piece’s original, now transformed, conception.