Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Visionary Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar Explores Indian Themes at a Familiar Lincoln Center Haunt

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble played the most epic, richly ironic show of 2017. Deep in the wicked heart of the financial district, completely unprepared for a frequent drizzle that threatened to explode overhead, they swept through a vast, oceanic suite largely based on Arabic modes in the shadow of a building festooned with the most hated name in the English language. That the visionary trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s mighty, heavily improvisational orchestra would be able to pull off such a darkly majestic, ultimately triumphant feat under such circumstances is reason for great optimism.

While this monumental suite, Not Two, references an Indian vernacular on occasion, that isn’t a major part of the work. However, ElSaffar has an auspicious concert coming up this Friday, September 8 at 7:30 PM at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St., where he’ll be leading a septet much deeper into Indian-inspired themes. Fans of the most deliciously rippling sounds imaginable should be aware that this band will feature both the Egyptian kanun and the Iraqi santoor. The show is free, and ElSaffar’s previous performance here sold out: it can’t hurt to get here early.

Another great irony is that this mid-June performance of Not Two featured lots of pairings between instruments. ElSaffar’s title reflects how few questions can be answered in black-and-white terms, and how manichaean thinking gets us in trouble every time. This is a profoundly uneasy, symphonic work with several themes: the two that jumped out the most at this show were a cynical fanfare of sorts and a swaying, anthemic Egyptian-influenced melody and seemingly endless variations.

The most poignant and plaintive duet was between ElSaffar, who played both santoor and trumpet, and his similarly talented sister Dena (leader of brilliant Indiana Middle Eastern band Salaam) on viola. Playing a spinet piano retuned to astringent microtones, Aruan Ortiz calmly found his footing, then lept a couple of octaves and circled animatedly while vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, at the opposite edge of the stage, maintained a warier, more lingering presence.

As the suite rose and fell, Ole Mathisen’s desolate microtonal tenor sax and Mohamed Saleh’s oboe emerged and then receded into the mist. Three of the night’s most adrenalizing solos were pure postbop jazz: ElSaffar’s cyclotronic Miles-at-gale-force trumpet swirls, baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton’s artfully crescendong development of a moody circular theme, and finally alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s rapidfire, surgically slashing foreshadowing of the coda. Many of the rest of the players got time in the spotlight, ranging from cautious and ominous to an intensity that bordered on frantic, no surprise in an era of deportations and travel bans. For this distinguished cast, which also comprised cellist Naseem Alatrash, oudists/percussionists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh, multi-reedman JD Parran, guitarist Miles Okazaki, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits, it was the show of a lifetime.

ElSaffar has a similarly stellar lineup for the September 8 show: Alatrash on cello plus Firas Zreik on kanun; Arun Ramamurthy on violin; Abhik Mukherjee on sitar; Jay Gandhi on bansuri flute, and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla. What’s more, this show is the first in Lincoln Center’s new series Outside India, a collaboration with the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the India Center Foundation. The game plan is to “disrupt the hierarchical nature of many Indian music collaborations and position Indian classical music as a space for inclusion and conversation in an innovative and radical new way.” Artists who will be joined by Massive members at future concerts include adventurous Afro-Cuban drummer Román Diaz on Nov 10, and Malian singer Awa Sangho on Feb 9.

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September 3, 2017 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.

October 29, 2014 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Namaskar Say Hello to Harlem

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.

October 22, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment