Ravi Shankar/Philip Glass: Ragas In Minor Scale

"Ragas in Minor Scale," performed by master musicians Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass, is an interesting slice of East-West fusion. While Glass' extensive training is most evident in the properly constructed composition, Shankar adds some very enticing embellishments upon the main theme on an instrument that is generally a stranger to the musical scope of such composers as Glass. Both men sound at ease well outside of what should be perceived as their respective comfort zones, and the music glides along effortlessly.

Everyone involved is obviously having a great time playing music that audibly sounds carefree, yet scholars may notice that the musicians throw a wrench into the plans by adding some major keyed trills at the very end that defy the song title's notion that the ragas are strictly performed in minor keys.

Shankar himself is responsible for mixing up some of the modes; after all, his general improvisational style, though evolved, has always utilized such ironies, and this recording is no exception. The energetic diversity is always fresh here, and the aura of respectability looms large as everyone emerges from the session as golden as the morning sunrise that the ragas seem to symbolize.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Ravi Shankar Project: Village Dance

Passable, yet somewhat unengaging, Ravi Shankar Project's "Village Dance" is a track that sounds like the production was warmed-over to provide the most commercial viability possible. The playing is great, of course, but the thick reverb washes away most of the recording and the rest of the musical elements ride atop the effect until the discerning listener wishes for a drier mix.

The composition itself (featuring several blistering resolves) seems fine, but the recording does not represent what it sounds like the ensemble was shooting for from the get-go. Musically, Shankar is the star; even though the players are sharing space effectively, he stands out despite the watery sonic presentation and performs in the reliable manner expected of him on all of his material. You can picture people doing tribal dances to this music while dwelling in second or third world villages, and at least that portion of the goal was achieved. Kudos to the participants regardless of however flabbily they were captured in the studio, because the dynamics are completely absent and any potentially colorful elements are washed out by a monochromic tint.

May 14, 2009 · 0 comments


Kala Ramnath & Ganesh Iyer: Raga Ahir Bhairav / Charka Vaham

This collaboration between two leading Indian violinists is itself a fusion of contrasting musical cultures. North Indian Kala Ramnath and her counterpart from the South, Ganesh Iyer, bring with them their respective Hindustani and Carnatic musical traditions, beautifully merged in this 40-minute performance. The opening section "Alap" is an improvisation in free tempo, starting in the lower register and gradually ascending in a dialogue that gains passion as it progresses, but never loses its centering focus. The following section falls into more structured time, and the pace accelerates in the concluding moments of this morning raga. Throughout, Ramnath and Iyer demonstrate their rich singing tones and distinctive phrasing, a sliding calculus of tone color which moves as smoothly as a skater on pristine ice. In a world of musical sound bites, this recording takes its time and rewards listeners willing to do the same.

December 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Ry Cooder & V.M. Bhatt: A Meeting by the River

Ry Cooder has always had his own quirky concept of fusion. Back with Chicken Skin Music in 1976, he was mixing spicy Tex-Mex, Hawaiian and American roots flavors like some Paul Prudhomme of the music world. He later went on to embrace everything from 1950s R&B to the Buena Vista Social Club. But Cooder's 1993 CD A Meeting by the River reveals a different, if no less praiseworthy, side of his musical split personality. This recording represents an exemplary blending of Hindustani musical traditions with the soundscapes of the U.S. of A. Cooder's partner, V.M. Bhatt, may have studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, but here he plays an instrument of his own invention, the Mohan veena, a modified hollow-bodied guitar with 20 strings. The addition of tabla and dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum from North Africa) contribute to the multicultural flavor. This is a classic recording and one that still sounds fresh years later.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Bill Laswell: Lost Roads

Bill Laswell is deservedly renowned as a musician and as a producer of some of the most diverse material you will likely ever find. Punk, funk, metal, jazz, rock, ambient and world music – you name it, he's done it. As a musician, he co-composed and played on Herbie Hancock's monster hit "Rockit." As a producer, he has run the gamut and even remixed existing Miles Davis and Carlos Santana albums. The CDs from those efforts, Panthalassa and Divine Light: Reconstructions & Mix Translation, both met with great praise and/or harsh criticism. His willingness to take on such risky projects over the years speaks volumes about his musical tenacity and vision. Another of these interesting endeavors is Hear No Evil.

Classifying music is always tricky and, in some cases, ill-advised. But as a critic, I must try to help readers understand what they would hear if they were sitting here with headphones on while spouse and children scurry about the house. Sometimes, classifying and comparing are the handiest tools to do this. So in my system, "Lost Roads" would be classified as meditative Indian-jazz-trance. This is not exactly a stretch on my part as the tabla maestro Zakir Hussain and Indian violin master Shankar are two of the tune's most obvious voices. Guitarist Skopelitus, a frequent Laswell collaborator, adds gentle affected arpeggios as Laswell seems content to take a simple role. We also hear some sitar-like plucking. A Hussain solo is always reason to take notice. "Lost Roads" may be a tune in a perimeter search for a melodic theme. (To be fair, as the first cut, "Lost Roads" acts almost as an overture for the rest of the CD). But it has a pleasing enough vibe that whether this tune was 7 minutes long, as it is, or 20 minutes, you would enjoy it just the same.

November 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Tabla Beat Science: Audiomaze

In Western music we have come to view the percussionist as providing accompaniment. The "serious music" repertoire (note: quotation marks indicate a quizzical tone in my voice) often dispenses entirely with percussion, and even commercial acts tend to hide the drummer at the back of the bandstand. Indeed, it is almost a truism among know-it-alls in the music world that you never let a drummer lead the band (although this is usually whispered out of earshot of the guy with the sticks in his hands).

But all this is an aberration, a quirk of history. I have discussed elsewhere the sociological reasons for the marginalization of percussion in Western music. Yet you don't need to take it from me, just open your ears. Even today, many traditional styles of music show us the limitations of our Western idealization of harmony—both as a technique and as a metaphor—revealing the power that is unleashed when the beat reigns as the master of the music, from which everything else radiates.

Bill Laswell may be a bassist (among other things), but he understands the power of percussion in a way that few others do. He has demonstrated this sensibility in a number of recordings, but especially with Tabla Beat Science, the group he formed with Zakir Hussain in 1999. The marriage of electronica with tabla may sound like an edgy concept, but this music exists at the center not the edges. Hussain's tabla grounds everything. It is not just the heartbeat of the band; it is the whole cardiovascular system. (It helps that the tabla is recorded with great presence in the mix.) Laswell's contributions here—switched-on sounds from the electronics factory—fit perfectly, as natural in juxtaposition as sparks accompanying a flame. In a music world that hypes so many phony fusions, this one stands out.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Rudresh Mahanthappa: Ganesha

This invigorating track from the stellar CD Kinsmen has been in frequent rotation on my CD player. Instead of driving the song structure with chord changes, Mahanthappa sets it in motion via a repeating 14-beat melodic pattern with a heavy funk orientation - think of it as a Carnatic "Chameleon." (Whoops . . . Boy George may have that phrase trademarked.) But the presence of alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath and violinist Avasarala Kanyakumari soon take this into musical currents far beyond the conventional formulas of fusion, or even jazz for that matter. I have been very impressed with the interplay between these two artists in other settings, and they again deliver a stunning performance here. Mahanthappa follows with a brilliant solo, more grounded in the jazz vocabulary, but he is also channeling some heavy South Indian spirits as well. The rhythm section is outstanding throughout this 11-minute performance, and might even leave you wondering why the mridangam, a double-headed drum associated with Carnatic music, doesn't show up more often on groove tunes.

November 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Kadri Gopalnath: Gajavadhana Hamsadvani Adi Purandaradasar

This is decidedly not your typical world fusion effort. Of course, there is a fusion happening here - the mere use of the alto sax in Carnatic music signals a blurring of cultural boundaries - but Kadri Gopalnath is a deep visionary whose recordings resist the glib formulas that so often accompany the meeting of soundscapes of the East and West. Born in Panemangalore, in Dakshina Kannada district, Gopalnath was raised in a musical family, but his attempt to assimilate the vocabulary of South Indian music to the cranky horn invented by Belgian Adolphe Sax was a radical step of self-definition. Gopalnath's career took a quantum leap forward when he was invited onstage at a 1980 Mumbai jazz festival by visiting artist John Handy (whose pioneering work in merging jazz and Indian music deserves far more recognition). Since then, Gopalnath has established his reputation as "Saxophone Chakravarthy" or "Emperor of the Saxophone" in a series of recordings.

Here he develops a mesmerizing 11-minute performance that evokes the energy, although not the vocabulary, of jazz. Instead of conventional solos, Gopalnath engages in a rich dialogue with violinist A. Kanyakumari that serves as the centerpiece of this track. Percussion ebbs and flow, with an ever-changing pulse provided by mridangam (a South Indian relative of the tabla) and morsing (the Indian equivalent of a Jew's harp). The latter instrument is the closest thing to a bass on this performance, but skeptics need to hear the end results before dismissing it out of hand. However, Gopalnath is the star attraction here. Fans of sax music who haven't experienced the magic of this artist, need to do so forthwith . . . and this track is a great place to start.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments


John Handy & Ali Akbar Khan: Ganesha's Jubilee Dance

The two albums recorded by John Handy and Ali Akbar Khan, Karuna Supreme (1975) and Rainbow (1980), are among the most successful fusions of jazz and Indian raga forms. Handy and Khan had been playing together periodically for several years before their first recording, which may help to explain Handy's relaxed and assured ability to adjust to the non-Western harmonic concepts, rhythms and tonalities of this challenging music, while still maintaining his individuality.

The 9-minute "Ganesha's Jubilee Dance," from Karuna Supreme, is inspired by Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is the son of Shiva, the god of music, and is based on the raga called "Jhinjoti," meaning "vibrate your body." The joyful, skipping theme is played by Handy, who then soars into his first solo already in full flight. His distinctly boppish lines contrast with more Eastern-sounding tonal effects. After reasserting the theme, Khan solos, his nimble fingers creating delicate yet emphatic structures. Handy again states the theme, and his second improvisation then ventures into the upper register with a pinched timbre, before swooping down to the lower depths of his horn. From there, he repeats mesmerizing rhythmic patterns and finally adopts the complex rhythms being laid down by Hussain's tabla. Khan next delivers a more intense solo than his first, his phrasing more jazz-like in both nature and spirit. He and Hussain reach a stirring dual climax. Handy again mimics the tabla's beats in his closing statement, which includes some additional ecstatic runs. The theme is restated to satisfyingly complete the cycle.

September 20, 2008 · 0 comments


Surinder Sandhu: Avi's Theme

World jazz player and composer Surinder Sandhu thinks in grand scales. This time out he has tackled another huge project. A grant was awarded in celebration of Liverpool, England's being named "European City of Culture 2008." Sandhu was given the task of writing music for the occasion, and his own band of musicians was to be augmented by the 75 members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Not surprisingly, he was thrilled to be given the opportunity. However, just as he was to begin composing, his nephew Avi tragically died. Sandhu found it impossible to even think about music. After mourning his nephew, Sandhu made several unsuccessful attempts at composing. His heart was just not in it. Finally inspiration returned when he went back to England from India. Sandhu says the music then poured out of him very quickly. Fittingly, the first cut on The Fictionist is entitled "Avi's Theme."

The Fictionist is comprised of 10 sections, but is written in such a way that it should be considered one long piece. "Avi's Theme" is everything you expect these days from Sandhu. It is a dramatic mix of European orchestral flourishes, Indian and Spanish (almost Argentinean) rhythms, with some modern Indian, funk and free jazz mixed in. Much of this modern music is produced by the ancient instruments of India, Sandhu's sarangi being chief among them. But there are also the sounds of electricity. On this particular tune it is Sandhu's sarangi, a bowed string instrument, and Chris Aldridge's saxophone that provide the most interest. Trish's accordion is also of note as it is played in the style of the Argentinean bandoneón. "Avi's Theme" is a fully realized effort full of scope and dynamic twists and turns. It almost gets you ready for what will follow.

August 30, 2008 · 0 comments


Miles From India: All Blues

Miles had a cool period, and a fusion period, but the Prince of Darkness never went through a Carnatic phase. Even so, his music, especially from the modal period, is well suited for the multicultural angle of the Miles From India project. For my part, I give high marks to any session that puts the great ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram in a rhythm section alongside Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb, and mixes sitar and alto sax in the front line. (Front line? Perhaps I should call it the front half lotus position.) Producer Bob Belden gets high marks just for the bravado of his vision. But the fun doesn't stop there. The band tackles "All Blues" in 5/4 just to add some more curry into an already spicy mix. In an age of tribute projects that are as tasty as last week's leftovers, this one delights the palette.

July 28, 2008 · 0 comments


Debashish Bhattacharya: Gypsy Anandi

Lately this strange and wonderful recording keeps finding its way back to my CD player. Everyone I share this music with is just as captivated as I am. Debashish Bhattacharya plays Indian slide guitar -- imagine Elmore James growing up in Calcutta -- and the end result is a music so fresh and different that you too will keep coming back for more. The cultural ingredients on this track will defy your best efforts to separate and identify. Yes, there are the expected Indian and blues elements, and a dose of Romani traditions (as the song title implies); but I also hear a Celtic lilt and echoes of bluegrass. But don't try to figure it out, just sit back and enjoy the finished product. Debashish Bhattacharya is a remarkable artist, and this CD is one of the most creative releases of the year.

July 21, 2008 · 0 comments


Zakir Hussain: Anisa

Making Music was Zakir Hussain's first solo release. It represented an important breakthrough in the world-jazz-fusion music scene. First, this was perhaps the first international fusion of its sort in which the bandleader was from the East. Until then, the vast majority of this hybrid of jazz and raga or Eastern modes had been performed by Westerner-led bands. You can go all the way back to Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, John Coltrane and Miles Davis to trace that history. Though Ravi Shankar recorded with Western musicians, his music followed the traditions of Indian classical music.

Second, Making Music was released by ECM. Founded in the late '60s, this German label at first released mostly jazz records, many of which had a distinct European feel that set them apart from mainstream jazz labels. Over time, this sound became a trademark. When Indian Hussain entered the studio, he was adding an Eastern element to this established ECM style. World music had been around in fits and starts for years, but when a major label like ECM got behind it, as they clearly did after Making Music, the genre received a great boost.

"Anisa" features three musicians from the world. Zakir Hussain is considered the greatest tabla player on earth. Englishman John McLaughlin is thought by many to be the best guitarist on earth. Norwegian Garbarek is also a world-renowned saxophonist. (The legendary flutist Hariprasad Chaurisia also appears on Making Music, but not on this cut.) Hussain's and McLaughlin's performance here is much different than their Shakti interplay of a decade earlier. More time is spent on space and texture. Dulcet chordal themes are developed. Indian music rules, if any, are relaxed. Above it all rises the ECM-ish tones of Garbarek's saxophone as he and McLaughlin play a pretty melody. Hussain contributes an energetic solo interspersed with Indian syllabic vocals. A brief, beautiful riff off the main melody suddenly appears, and vanishes just as quickly, bringing the proceedings to an abrupt but gentle landing.

May 19, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Liebman: India

Every modern jazz saxophonist owes something to John Coltrane whether he or she sounds like Trane or not. Liebman can really sound like him, though, especially when interpreting Trane's music. Liebman doesn't purposefully mimic lines or solos. It is more about the musical thought process. On "India," he plays the way he thinks Coltrane might have approached the tune had Trane still been around in 1987. Imagine John Coltrane surrounded by electric basses and synthesizers. If you are able to do that, you'll dig Liebman's take on "India."

April 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Shankar: Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi

The Indian violin virtuoso Shankar seems to suffer a chronic identity crisis. Over the years, he has been variously credited as Lakshminarayanan Shankar, L. Shankar, or Shankar. Recently he changed his stage name and now answers to Shenkar. While there may be good reasons for this, it sure is confusing. Shenkar has had identity issues with his musical persona as well. In India, he was one of the greatest young classical Indian violinists. He traveled to the U.S. in 1969 and discovered jazz music. This led him to co-found the groundbreaking Indo-jazz outfit Shakti. Then he fell in love with pop music and recorded the Frank Zappa-produced album Touch Me There, one of the most ill-advised pop records ever released. Shankar found a modicum of success as a sunglasses-wearing sidekick to rock star Peter Gabriel before embarking on a really strange but interesting musical path that continues to this day.

"Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi" is side one of Who's To Know, his greatest artistic achievement to date. I love Indian music, but I approach it as a Westerner. There are many elements it shares with jazz, and this track is certainly a fusion. Still, I would rather listen to Indian music than spend time learning about its technical rudiments. From time to time, I will study aspects of the music to gain further understanding. But in the end, my enjoyment is totally visceral. So I choose to ignore the fact that Shenkar informs us that for this piece, he created a new Tala cycle based, in the first part, on 5½ beats per cycle and, in the second part, on 4½ beats. Pardon my French, but it's all Greek to me. What I do know is that Shenkar's invention and mastery of the unique double violin, and the rhythmic magic of tabla maestro Zakir Hussain, keep me totally engaged for 22:11. My Indian friends assure me I would find the performance even more brilliant if I were able to listen as an Indian. Although I find that hard to believe, it does make me jealous.

March 29, 2008 · 2 comments


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