Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Gorgeous, Groundbreaking East-West Collaboration

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.

May 10, 2011 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: V.M. Bhatt & Matt Malley – Sleepless Nights

Irony of ironies – this is what we use at naptime at Lucid Culture HQ. Hypnotic but often blisteringly intense, it’s equal parts fret-burning power and soothing ambience, and completely psychedelic either way. It’s like what you might hear in the NYC subway, an innovative, Grammy-awardwinning Indian musician who’s modified his guitar to sound like a sitar, and his younger protege on an old vintage synthesizer. Only in New York – except that this was recorded in India. Like most South Indian music, the new album by V.M. Bhatt and Matt Malley is pretty much sans chord changes – it’s all in the dynamics and the sometimes subtle, sometimes striking melodic embellishments, more innovative than you would think after hearing this once. Remember – that’s not a sitar. That’s a guitar, “furnished with 14 additional strings and calling for perfect assimilation of sitar, sarod and veena techniques” as Bhatt’s label explains.

Count this as Matt Malley’s great shining moment, atoning for any association with 90s frat-rock atrocity Counting Crows. Malley plays keys; he pretty much stays out of the way. Bhatt, a Ravi Shankar disciple, is a fiery and virtuosic player who plays sitar lines on an open-tuned guitar he designed himself, which he calls a mohan veena (to distinguish itself from the Indian veena). His 1994 album with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River, made some waves internationally and won the two a Grammy. Imagine the great Indian guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya fingerpicking instead of playing with a slide and you’re on the right track.

The album opens with what sounds like an Indian rewrite of Church in the Wildwood, a swinging bluegrass tune but with South Asian flourishes. It’s the only moment of Americana on the album. The aptly titled second track, Sleepless Nights could be the frenetic, concluding section to a sitar raga but with a sharper sonic focus, Bhatt’s incisive fingerwork taking the place of a sitar’s dense, twangy layers of overtones. Slow and swooping, The Eternal Wait is a study in tension-building, fading majestically rather than taking any kind of crescendo over the top. The most rock-inflected piece here is The Scalding Rain (a song for the global warming era if there ever was one), alluding masterfully to a catchy central hook that teases the listener but never quite coalesces.

Another aptly titled composition, Languid with Longing has Malley’s electric piano following Bhatt’s first movement, ghostly and otherworldly – the juxtaposition between the guitar’s rustic tone and the creepy techno feel of the synthesizer might sound jarring but it works, in a horror-movie soundtrack kind of way. Ditto the concluding track, Silent Footsteps, a mini-suite that ranges from plaintive to eerie to frenetic. You can get completely lost in this. It’s out now on World Village Music.

May 27, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Raghunath Manet – Veena Dreams

Raghunath Manet seems to be the world’s only performer equally skilled in classical Indian dance and as a virtuoso of the veena (a smaller version of the sitar). This is one of the most extraordinary instrumental albums of the year – if you can call it an instrumental album. Like George Benson on the guitar, on a few of the songs here Manet will occasionally vocalize while he plays, forcefully. The album appears to be devotional, an attempt to fuse with the divine: for a western listener without any liner notes or knowledge of Indian languages, it’s unclear if these are liturgical chants or if Manet’s simply scatting along with the beat. Whatever the case, it’s a bit distracting, but when the veena, tampura (lute) and percussion in Manet’s ensemble are going full force, the effect is deliriously intense and absolutely mesmerizing. This is a suite of original compositions, a theme and variations that blend devices from western classical music and jazz as well as elements of the blues with Manet’s south Indian classical stylings; to say that it bears comparison alongside such south Indian masters as Debashish Bhattacharya or Ravi Shankar would not be an overstatement.

The central theme is an exquisitely beautiful, clanging and oscillating eight-bar phrase which coalesces and rings out ecstatically on the album’s third track. Before that, there’s a long, almost seventeen-minute introductory section which hints marvelously at the fireworks to come and also makes it clear how fond Manet is of blues phrases. After a brief segment for solo voice and percussion, there’s the central fireworks, followed by the first set of variations, picking up slowly and building with a terse minimalism. The fifth track here, at least during the first minute or so, is practically indistinguishable from the ambient, drony Mississippi delta acoustic blues of Robert Belfour or Will Scott before returning to harmonium-drenched, warm ambience.

After that, there’s a slow tone poem with more harmonium and then the resolutely galloping, eventually fierily chordal title track which finally brings in the main theme with all its glory before a surprisingly ominous, low-key outro. The suite concludes on a surprisingly stately, understated note that finally, after about six minutes, brings in half of the central theme, gently before two brief bars of tabla and then silence. Maybe this was designed to help the listener wind down from the thrill ride of of the previous fifty minute or so. Check your favorite world music retailer, amazon, emusic or mp3.com.

August 18, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment