[originally published at Lucid Culture's sister blog New York Music Daily]
The Sachal Studios Orchestra‘s latest album Jazz and All That is more all that than it is jazz – and it is all that, most definitely. The Pakistani orchestral ensemble plays Bollywood-style versions of popular Western themes with a titanic, epic Mahlerian/Spector-esque power, driven mainly by a massive string section. Their shtick is to substitute South Asian instruments like sitar, sarangi, wood flute and tabla in place of piano, sax or drum kit when it comes time for solos. They also prove perfectly competent at playing styles from around the world in their original idioms, without any distinguishable Pakistani/Indian flavor, demonstrated here via a vividly Celtic-tinged version of Morning Has Broken and a lavish, string-driven cover of Jobim’s iconic bossa nova hit, Wave. They’re at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 8 PM on Nov 22 and 23, where they’ll be collaborating with Wynton Marsalis’ JALC Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more potentially explosive cross-cultural orchestral collaboration on any New York stage in recent memory.
The album opens with a full-throttle vamp through Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad Girl, with sitar, flute and harmonium over a Bacharach-esque groove. The French chanson favorite If You Go Away (Si Tu Dois Partir) is as much art-rock as it is cinematic theme, a long, sweeping crescendo building as the thicket of percussion grows denser, handing off to terse vibraphone and then piano solos. Moonlight in Vermont opens with a conversation between sitar and fiddle, then a slide guitar, a hypnotically tricky, rhythmic but aptly dreamy reinterpretation that may well be the best version of this old chesnut ever recorded.
Monsoon, by Wazir Afzal, a trip-hop song, is the most hypnotic number here, flavored with moody harmonica, a long trumpet solo handing off to the sitar. The orchestra’s version of the Pink Panther theme is oldschool Bollywood as S.D. Burman would have done it; they wait til the fourth time through the verse to go completely over-the-top with the sitar. The comedy continues with Ponteio, by Edu Lobo, redone as Pakistani disco with a jawharp intro, bass flute and then harmonica adding gravitas to this otherwise airy vamp. And to the orchestra’s massive credit – pun intended – they manage not only to not butcher Eleanor Rigby, but to beef up the original’s macabre surrealism with a barrage of strings which actually push the delicately nuanced sitar line out of the sonic picture.
The worst song on the album is the weepy early 90s REM hit Everybody Hurts…but by eliminating the vocals and doing it as a stunningly simple Americana waltz, albeit with stark traditional fiddle and harmonium, it’s completely transformed into a catchy lullaby. The best and longest song on the album is the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays tune To the End of the World, which they reinvent as an uneasily glimmering Isaac Hayes-style crime-jazz theme, bluesy piano and dancing bass paired off against the sitar over a black velvet groove. The Dave Brubeck classic Blue Rondo a la Turk is the closest thing to the original here: lavish as it is, the sitar lead sticks very close to Brubeck’s piano line. And Kafi Jazz (Five Rivers), by Baqir Abbas has the sitar leading a lush, uneasy bossa groove, the tsunami of strings again subsuming the lead instruments, nimble acoustic guitar and then a sitar/guitar exchange brightening the mist. Fans of all of the above artists will find this anything from exhilarating to maddeningly weird to LMAO funny, all of which seem to be the point of this irrepressible large ensemble.
If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.
The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.
An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.
Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.
We know that we’re in a depression when Falu is onstage singing, trading licks with JD Allen and the club isn’t sold out. Tuesday night at Drom, there was a good crowd in the house for the album release show for percussionist Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence. But Allen routinely packs the Village Vanguard when he does a weeklong stand there, and Falu is playing her album release show at the Highline on the 29th with a whole slew of great bands including Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat, Ellingtonian Balkan horn band Slavic Soul Party and the Toomai String Quintet.
In a roundabound way, Brown explained how his excellent new album (reviewed here) reinvents the cult classic album How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gee’s Bend by the Gee’s Bend Quilters. Over samples of choirs and piano/vocals from the two recorded volumes by that rural Alabama community ensemble (spanning half a century), guitarist Chris Sholar played tersely and meaningfully, even when he got to the Hendrix licks. Much as that endless series of classic rock quotes grew tiresome, his sampler got old even faster. On one hand, to play drums against a tape is cruelly difficult: that Brown was able to match his intricate and sensitive ornamentation to a recorded backdrop testifies to his strength as a timekeeper. On the other hand, the karaoke aspect was superfluous at the beginning – name a singer who wouldn’t want to trade licks with JD Allen, they’d be lined up around the block – and exasperating at the end when the mp3s or whatever they were drowned out the sax.
Getting to that exasperating point was a lot of fun. Falu heard Allen’s snarling modal intensity and realized that she could conjure even more magic out of him, and she did. It didn’t take a minute before the two were duelling and then matching up note for note in a raw, plaintive duet as Brown built a storm of sparkles with his cymbals behind them. Allen took the dark African modes of the rustic gospel licks that appear early on the album and spun cruel, sharp amber glass spirals against them: to hear both the sax and voice reach for an emotion and nail them in a few notes, succinctly, again and again, was exhilarating. Falu began and ended utilizing her powerful lower register singing ghazals against a sweeping, cymbal hailstorm groove with a seemingly endless series of playful tradeoffs with Allen midway through. That the crew onstage were able to to have so much fun and evoke such a panorama of feeling over the course of practically two hours of playing to a backing track testifies to their singleminded focus.
For a player who aspires to mystically become one with the music on any given night, Indian santoor virtuoso Shivkumar Sharma is one funny guy. At his sold-out show last night at the Town Hall, he and percussionist Zakir Hussain egged each other on, trading deadpan riffage, goosing each other with trick endings, pregnant pauses and a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood or folk music quote or two all the way to a mad dash for the finish line at the end of roughly two hours onstage. While most of their jokes were musical, Sharma isn’t above messing with the audience. He wondered aloud if the numerous toddlers in the house would prove to be sonic competition (they were), and in tuning his 86 strings, turned what could have been an ordeal into a lively, even plaintive melody. Hussain played bad cop to Sharma’s poker-faced good cop for most of the concert, firing off a series of long launching-pad tabla solos that began as total buffoonery and were then toned down a bit. But the most irresistibly comedic moment of the night belonged to Sharma, when he finally decided to outdo his sparring partner – and Hussain was there in a split second, as usual, this time to play straight man as Sharma ramped up his solo with a muffled, muted, over-the-top bombast.
In between jokes, the concert was 180 degrees from that. Sharma is to the santoor – the Indian hammered dulcimer, godfather to the Egyptian qanun, Hungarian cimbalom and the many zithers – what Les Paul was to the guitar. As a young prodigy, Sharma revolutionized the instrument, expanding its range and giving it a sustain that made it compatible with ensembles larger than the small groups employing it for traditional Kashmiri vocal repertoire. Bollywood – which he stoically made fun of, notwithstanding the fact that he’s one of the music’s founding fathers – wouldn’t be the same without his influence. At 75, his fingers are no less nimble on the hammers than they were forty years ago: if anything, he’s even subtler now, judiciously improvising from a steady march to a dancing, rippling, ringingly anthemic energy and alternating fiery pedal-note lines with whispery glissandos as the concert wore on. His first alap (jam) picked up steam when Hussain entered with a stately 4/4 beat that artfully morphed to 7/4 and then the jousting began. Sharma’s second solo improvisation was more deliberate and cut to the chase more quickly, Hussain wasting no time trading licks, shadowing and weaving in between Sharma’s increasingly agitated cadenzas and downward progressions. Their gallop to the finish was a rich reminder that music, in the right hands, doesn’t have to be dark to be deep. Sharma will no doubt be back in town at some point in the not-too-distant future – keep an eye on the World Music Institute calendar.
How many great string ensembles does New York have? An unlimited supply, apparently. One especially intriguing group is the quartet Karavika, who play alternately lush and lively compositions based on Indian motifs that span from Bollywood back to ragas. Violinist Trina Basu and cellist Amali Premawardhana, bassist Perry Wortman and tabla player Avi Shah combine forces for a diversely melodic, often hypnotic original sound that also occasionally reaches toward Appalachian rusticity or a brisk Celtic mood. They’re playing the album release show for their new one, Sunrise, tonight at 7 at Drom.
It takes nerve to open your album with a solid minute of solo drums, but that’s what they do with On the Wing, a brightly swaying blue-sky theme with both American folk and Indian inflections, meticulous madrigalesque counterpoint and a suspenseful, percussive interlude midway through. The carefree Little Road Song is a minuet in disguise, with its tricky tempo changes, vividly rustic arrangement and then an unexpectedly pensive cello solo. The most striking composition here is Song That Floats on the Breeze, with its subtly crescendoing handoffs between violin and cello, allusions to both sitar music and Pink Floyd, and an intense buildup at the end that winds out gracefully in a fluttery star-shower of violin and cello.
The longest song here is the aptly titled Moonbeam, a nocturne that artfully works the album’s only extended minor-key theme through alternately soaring and stately passages to wind up on with an unexpectedly mysterious pulse. The Dancer, which is almost as long, is basically a partita, Basu and Premawardhana switching between austere and animated roles, then building to a full-steam ensemble workout that they take down again with a distantly reflective cello solo. The title track is the most distinctly Indian piece here, from its fluttering staccato intro, to a series of insistent turnarounds and a deliciously incisive, bluesy cello solo that Basu follows with an upwardly swirling, circling sweep. It sounds quite a bit like Brookyn Rider taking an inspired stab at classical Indian music. Whether quiet and reflective or joyously energetic, the melodies are as bright as the musicians’ tone: this is music for celebrating or getting lost in. As you would expect from an ensemble with a new album out, Karavika are busy this month; they’re also at Caffe Vivaldi on 4/20 at 8:30 PM.
Muslim mystical music being as diverse as Islam itself, it’s only appropriate that the new Volume 2 of the Rough Guide to Sufi Music would highlight the eclecticism of Sufi devotional music from around the globe. Some of the songs here are straight-up pop, others take ancient themes to trippy, psychedelic extremes, while traditionalists look back centuries and even millennia for inspiration. There’s a lot of cross-pollination: the sacred becomes profane and vice versa.
The compilation’s opening track, Zikr, by Kudsi Erguner vamps on a hypnotic Arabic flute theme. On one of the real standout tracks here, Syrian group Ensemble Al Kindi join forces with acclaimed sufi singer Sheikh Habboush for an epic that begins with a rippling qanun improvisation and builds to a swaying dance. Likewise, a number by Pakistani qawwali singer and 2006 BBC World Music award winner Sain Zahoor is more celebration than invocation or lament – and is that a Farfisa in the mix?
Two Senegalese artists are represented: Modue Gaye, whose artful, improvisational blend of West African and levantine sounds creates the single most memorable track here, and Cheikh Lo, who weighs in with a simple, mantralike acoustic guitar song. Afghani ensemble the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group offer the most traditional song here, with its animated call-and-response, while Pakistani songstress Sanam Marvi contributes a neat update on some old ideas, spicing her guitar-based trip-hop with an imploring solo vocal intro and then rustically soaring fiddle.
There’s also reggae from Pakistani duo Arif Lohar & Meesha Shafi, trip-hop from Transglobal Underground and the Indian trio M. Abdul Gani, M. Haja Maideen & S.Sabur Maideen, and a surprising lo-fi dub reggae remix of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan number that actually beats the original. As with all the recent Rough Guide compilations, this is made even more enticing by the inclusion of a bonus cd, the Rough Guide to the Sufi Fakirs of Bengal, which has never before been available outside India. Literally a trip back in time, it’s a mixture of the blissful and the wary, with lute, flute, percussion and layers of vocals from a rotating cast of singers.
Hello from Halifax! Montreal was a blast; we’ll see what the Maritimes have in store for us. More about Montreal momentarily; in the meantime, as we do every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Monday’s album is #582:
Kayhan Kalhor, Shujaat Husain Khan and Swapan Chaudhuri – Ghazal: Lost Songs of the Silk Road
This landmark 1997 cross-genre collaboration put “silk road music” on the global map. The medieval mercantile trail from Asia, through the Middle East, to Europe, brought a lot more than spices, fabric and luxury goods: it was arguably the world’s most important bridge for musical cross-pollination. Here, Iranian Kayhan Kalhor, one of the most important and compelling composers of this era, plays the kamancheh, the rustic, plaintive spike fiddle. Khan is a renowned sitar player, Chaudhuri a percussionist. Revisiting the centuries-old trail, they blend classical Indian and Middle Eastern sounds into a hypnotic, often haunting mix. The big epic here is the almost twenty-minute Saga of the Rising Sun, which is the most overtly Indian of the compositions; the concluding Safar (Journey) is the most Iranian. In between, the almost half-hour of Come with Me and You Are My Moon are a showcase for these great musicians branching out into unfamiliar territory and achieving mesmerizingly intense results. We were only able to find torrents for the whole album in two parts, here and here.
What if you could blend the hypnotic otherworldliness of classical Indian music with the lush melodicism of European classical music? That possibility comes to life on the new album Samaagam, a groundbreaking collaboration between Indian sarod virtuoso Amjad Ali Khan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Murphy. For those unfamiliar with the instrument, the sarod (sort of) is to the sitar what the mandolin is to the guitar – it has less resonance, with more emphasis on the upper register. Amjad Ali Khan is one of the world’s great masters (his website is sarod.com); on this album, he begins with three abbreviated versions of classical Indian ragas, followed by the epic title suite. The ragas set the stage, each of them clocking in at a relatively brief seven minutes or so: the first an apertif of sorts, the second more aggressive with insistent staccato passages and the last the most complex and suspenseful.
The title piece, meaning “village meeting” in Sanskrit, is a concerto for sarod and chamber orchestra with terse, even minimal tabla rhythm, a fascinating and richly beautiful mix of Indian and Western melodies. Much of it evokes earlier Western music inspired by the sounds of India, specifically the late 60s rock of the Grateful Dead and Moody Blues. Rather than an integral suite, it’s actually a pastiche of new and older material: for example, the first two sections debuted in Indian in 1992, the third in 1964. Throughout the work, the orchestra shifts through rhythms that probably have never been attempted before with a Western orchestra, but Murphy leads them seamlessly, whether on their own or in tandem with the sarod. Likewise, they switch between the melismas of Indian music and the crisp Western dynamics with equal aplomb.
A quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra opens it playfully before Khan enters. They shift down to a quiet, plaintive arrangement, the sarod in and out as the orchestra swirls, moving to a rapt, pianissimo call-and-response passage between the sarod and the ensemble with a familiar melody that’s been appropriated by many western outfits over the years. Flute features prominently in the quiet, gentle sections that follow before it picks up with a rustic sway, a swirl of cadenzas with wordless vocals from Khan. The last three segments are traditional raga themes: the first ironically sounding like a Haydn arrangement of a south Indian melody, the second a brisk overture and the third a popular theme traditionally played as a “morning raga,” i.e. to wind up a concert in the wee hours. It’s the showstopper here, both poignant and boisterous, an echo chamber where the sarod and then the orchestra engage in a dizzying conversation that finally goes doublespeed and out with a bright, unexpected ending. An apt way to conclude this warmly beautiful, groundbreaking album, just out on World Village Music.
This year’s Vital Vox Festival, artfully assembled by the perennially eclectic and innovative Sabrina Lastman, wound up Saturday Night at Issue Project Room with some impressively captivating and entertaining performances. First on the bill was the Takadimi Duo, a.k.a. singer Lori Cotler and percussionist Glen Velez. In this project, their shtick is creating music out of the staccato, rhythmic konokol drum language frequently utilized by Indian percussionists – say “samosapapadum, canihavesomemorewaterplease” five times fast and you’ll get the picture. They got everyone, including themselves, laughing at a tongue-in-cheek “conversation,” Velez gamely trying to hold up his end against Cotler’s rapidfire syllabication. Her most captivating moment in a set full of many was a torchy, mysterioso number, like a jazzier Alessandra Belloni, slinking modally among the blue notes and occasionally punctuating Velez’ nocturnal ambience with a little dinner bell. Velez took a couple of frame drum solos and wowed the crowd with his ability to effectively replicate a John Bonham-style workup with just the fingers of one hand. At the end of the set, Cotler tried to get the audience to rap along with her – from the first few beats, it was obvious that this was a rhythmically challenged crew. Still, it was a lot of fun trying to keep up with her – and with Velez, who succeeded in getting at least a portion of the audience to join him in a shimmery display of overtone-tinged Tuvan throat-singing.
Audrey Chen was next, performing a solo set on vocals and cello, augmented by a homemade loop machine that would send showers of audio sparks oscillating throughout the mix as she roared, purred, growled, rasped and assaulted the crowd: as much as Cotler and Velez had tried to pull them in, it seemed that she was trying to clear the room. It didn’t work. And by the time she was finished, it was impossible not to want more. Chen doesn’t mess around with words: she goes straight to the emotion, usually the most intense one. She’s not merely in touch with her inner four-year-old – she also channeled her inner four-day-old, a voracious and easily disturbed presence whose violently perplexed, contrarian vocalese – if you could call it that – was impossible to turn away from. She scraped on her cello, looped the noise and ran it through a series of echo effects, sometimes mimicking them with her voice, sometimes adding the same effects to her vocals. If she hadn’t been such a forceful presence onstage, it would have been hard to tell which was which, woman or machine. Self-indulgent? Maybe. A riveting portrait of madness? Possibly. Compelling? Beyond words. Between her two, long pieces, she explained with a casual and considerably contrasting warmth that they were both improvisations. The lone linguistic phrase that made its way into her performance was a sinister, breathy whisper, “I’m hungry…for a bite of you.” After scraping yet more varnish off the edge of her cello between the bridge and the fingerboard, evoking a thousand horror-movie doors closing in unison, then getting its murky insides to rumble even lower, she ended with a couple of lush, still, stunningly lyrical Messiaenesque chords. Where the devil’s choir ended, she’d found genuine, otherworldly beauty.
Chen’s doing a duo show with Jim Pugliese at Issue Project Room on January 21.
Sixty years ago, players jazzed up Broadway songs. Namaskar jazz up Bollywood. Their show Tuesday night in the gorgeous 19th century interior of the Harlem Stage Gatehouse at 135th and Convent Ave. was every bit as hypnotic, yet far more direct than their lushly psychedelic new cd, whose release they were celebrating. The album, a collection of classically-influenced originals and vintage Bollywood themes from the 50s, is essentially the Marc Cary Focus Trio with drummer Sameer Gupta leading the band, accompanied by a cast of Indian music luminaries. This time out they had Rashaan Carter subbing on bass for David Ewell, along with Neel Murgai on sitar and Arun Ramamurthy on violin. Because the melodies are so simple – a couple of them were essentially one-chord jams – the musicians kept their lines smartly terse. Murgai played the sitar like a guitar, picking his spots judiciously as he moved up or down the scale, only once cutting loose with a fiery solo featuring some intense guitar-style tremolo-picking toward the end of the set. Ramamurthy took advantage of the openness of the situation, making full use of the bent notes and melismas of Indian classical music while Carter alternated between groove and melodic hooks: the bass carried the melody as much as any of the other instruments. Cary alternated between piano and Rhodes, often playing electric lines in his righthand while holding down his signature, saturnine low registers in the left, frequently tossing a riff or a tempo shift to Gupta, who’d cleverly fire back one of his own. Since the melodies are often so minimalist in this project, rhythm is the key to everything, Gupta emerging early on as captain of this trip, whether playfully hammering out vaudevillian lines on his rims, feathering a dreamy nest of trancey tabla textures or shading the music in varying tinges of grey over a 10/4 beat, as he did on one number.
Gupta explained that his original composition Attachment, which appears both on the Namaskar album as well as the Focus Trio’s stunning Live 2009 album (watch this space for more about that), was based on a rainy season raga from the classical Indian repertoire. Carter gave it a brisk intro that was almost bluegrass, leading into lush ensemble passages, Murgai’s languid lines contrasting with Ramamurthy’s busy intensity. A stab at a (relatively) brief raga, ostensibly one of Cary’s favorites, pulsed along on Carter’s insistent bassline, “A Harlem tradition,” Gupta took care to mention (bass in classical Indian music is usually handled by the tabla, or the wonderful lower-register sitar, the surbahar). Jangle, another track from the album, is based on a dance tune whose original title is “shake your ankle bracelets.” Cary filled out its framework with oceanic cascades of incisively bluesy riffage on the Rhodes. He didn’t launch into as much of the rippling glimmer he can sustain for minutes like he does with the Focus Trio, but when he did the effect was intense, often magisterial: there’s a rare depth and solidity anchoring his expansive, sometimes breathtaking flights. What was most impressive is that the strongest performances were on the newest material, from the opening jam with brief, memorable solos around the horn, to the long, catchy, fluid sitar-driven number that followed it, to the surprisingly mellow encore which took the show out on a gracefully contemplative note. The crowd – a pleasantly diverse crew who, if the shout-outs to various boroughs before the show were to be believed, represented everywhere but Staten Island – responded thunderously, not something you’d expect at what was essentially a jam band show.
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