Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Magical, Cinematic Jazz Nocturnes From Aakash Mittal at Lincoln Center

“Tonight’s show is going to be very meditative and very beautiful – you’re going to want to soak in the piece, in one full bite,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused before Aakash Mittal took the stage with his trio this past evening. She was on to something. “My mind was blown by the variety of artists here,” Mittal agreed, being a regular at the atrium space where Dugal brings in talent from around the world (the Asian American Arts Alliance and India Center Foundation  partnered with Lincoln Center to make this happen). Then the group launched into the world premiere of a piece Mittal had just finished at 11 PM the night before

It’s a shout-out to three artists Mittal has worked with in recent years: avant garde soul singer Imani Uzuri, paradigm-shifting microtonal saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh and similarly legendary drummer/cardiac medicine guru Milford Graves. That eclecticism perfectly capsulized what Mittal is all about: a rugged individualist with sax (and clarinet, and flute) building on some of the catchiest tunes in a five thousand year tradition for something completely new and different.

He began the show on his usual axe, alto sax with a characteristically simple, crystallized, resonant series of phrases as guitarist Miles Okazaki jangled and plinked, Rajna Swaminathan nimbly firing out boomy syncopation on her double-barreled mridangam drum. As this enigmatic tone poem built up steam, it made an apt introduction for the series of nocturnes, each inspired by an individual Indian raga, which followed on the bill.

Swaminathan was energized right from the beginning, so Mittal and Okazaki chilled out before leaping back in and taking the introductory theme skyward, high-voltage bhangra melismatics balanced by punchy pedal phrases from the guitar. Rudresh Mahanthappa at his moodiest and most concise came to mind.

As the trio gently launched into the first nocturne, Mittal’s brooding blue-light curlicues contrasted with Swaminathan’s knock-knock beats, Okazaki again holding the center but pulling hard against it with his acidic chords. Mittal ceded the foreground, hanging on a long, mysterious drone, then picked up the pace with a coyly furtive, noir-tinged melody and variations that methodically drifted toward a tight bhangra pulse.

Okazaki sputtered out basslines and a little muted skronk; Mittal alluded to the slashing chromatics of Arabic modes, finally leiving the mist behind with a couple of wildfire flurries and some otherworldly duotones. Deviously dancing phrases occupied moody ambience; Mittal’s insistence paired off with Okazaki’s resilient chordal steadiness and cheery bubbles, occasionally hinting at Cuban riffage. With the boom from the mridangam, the absence of bass wasn’t a big deal. Ironically, the final nocturne was the sparest yet most hypnotically anthemic.

They pared the sound down to the bone for a plaintive rainy-day duo soundscape, Swaminathan eventually providing some distant thunder beyond the gloom. The funky number after that was closer to straight-ahead postbop jazz, but still Okazaki’s tense modal attack didn’t stray far from the center while the dance grew more agitated.

A flute duo between Mittal and guest Pawan Benjamin drew on Anthony Braxton’s modular writing but even as the notes rose higher up the scale, Mittal’s circular, nocturnal phrasing remained consistent,up to a shadowy ambient interlude where he switched to clarinet. The full quartet closed with a rivetingly microtonal, slashingly melismatic take of Street Music, Mittal’s evocation of late-night jamming in Kolkata, where he studied classical Indian music on a scholarship.

Mittal’s next gig is part of the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon starting at 5 PM on Oct 5 and going all night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. And the free, mostly-weekly series of shows at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues this Oct 4 at 7:30 PM with firebrand Egyptian accordionist/songwriter Youssra El Hawary, best known for her hilarious Arab Spring youtube hit Piss on the Wall.

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September 27, 2018 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aakash Mittal at Nationa Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

March 15, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rudresh Mahanthappa Brings His Sizzling Indian-Flavored Take on Charlie Parker to the Jazz Standard

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa is one of the world’s most individualistic and thrilling musicians, a wide-ranging scholar of jazz as well as Indian music. His latest album, Bird Calls – streaming at Spotify – is a characteristically unconventional effort, heavily influenced by Charlie Parker, although not a tribute album per se. His performance with the quintet on the album at this year’s Winter Jazzfest was a spine-tingling display of chops, ideas, and high-voltage banter between the musicians. He’s doing it again, playing the album release show at the Jazz Standard on March 24 with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM with a slightly different crew: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Bobby Avey, bassist François Moutin and drummer Jordan Perlson. Cover is $25.

Musicians have been highfiving each other in song for eons. The shout-outs to Bird on this album are all over the place, some as simple as Mahanthappa playing his own tune over Parker’s changes, to switching up the rhythm of a Bird melody or solo, along with more artfully concealed passages. Whatever the case, it’s classic Mahanthappa, ancient-sounding, often majestic Indian motifs within a somewhat harder bop framework than usual.

The album juxtaposes brief interludes with larger-scale numbers. Bird Calls #1, which opens it, is a brief, murkily suspenseful modal platform for the first of many animated sax-trumpet conversation (at Winter Jazzfest, they really took their time and had a ball with this). On the DL (a reference to Bird’s Donna Lee) opens with the same interplay at triplespeed or more – how firebrand young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (son of latin jazz maven Arturo) matches Mahanthappa’s silken, precise intonation is stunning. At Winter Jazzfest, Indian percussion master Vish, of dancefloor groove instrumentalists SuKhush commented that if this was a sine wave, it would be completely flat [thanks for the company and the erudite insights, guys!].

Sax and trumpet join in a tightly rhythmic duet with echoes of Indian bhangra brass music, followed by Chillin’, referencing Bird’s Relaxin’ at the Camarillo in bubbly, joyous trumpet/sax eschanges, graceful melismas from O’Farrill and long, elusive flights from Mahanthappa. They follow a playful, masterful solo sax passage replete with overtones and subtle rhythmic shifts with Talin Is Thinking, inspired equally by Parker’s Mood and Mahanthappa’s young son. A pensive march that rises to majestic, fiery heights, pianist Matt Mitchell’s resonant, hard-hitting but surgically precise pedalpoint enhances the shadowy Indian-tinged mystery underneath.  Moutin’s dancing, kinetic lines blend with and then leap from drummer Rudy Royston’s steady, subtle rat-a-tat drive: who knew he could channel an intricate tabla rhythm yet bring it into the 21st century, thousands of miles away?

Both Hands (based on Dexterity) is another showcase for clarity and rapidfire precision from sax and trumpet, hard bop over a briskly rumbling, hypnotic backdrop, Mitchell nimbly choosing his spots. A rustling Moutin solo leads into the wryly tiltled Gopuram (referencing Steeplechase – in India, a gopur is a temple tower), a tersely simmering, modally-charged number that reminds of Marc Cary (has he played with Mahanthappa? What a collaboration that would be!).

Maybe Later (drawing on Now’s the Time) contrasts lively, upbeat postbop horn riffage with a sternly rhythmic underpinning, with an acidically rippling Mitchell solo over Royston’s tumbling aggression and jabs. An expansive Mitchell solo sets the stage for Sure Why Not? (a shout-out to Confirmation and Barbados), the album’s least Indian-flavored and most lightheartedly pulsing track. The album winds up much the way it started, but with a staccato pulse, referencing Bird’s Anthropology with all hands on deck, blistering spirals from Mitchell and a hard-charging sax/trumpet debate. In case you haven’t figured out, there’s no one on earth who sounds remotely like Rudresh Mahanthappa, and he’s a force of nature live. This show promises to be amazing, get there early.

March 21, 2015 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, 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

Sameer Gupta’s Namaskar Is Irresistible

Sameer Gupta, the drummer in Marc Cary’s Focus Trio has released the most irresistibly psychedelic album of the year with Namaskar (meaning “respect,” for all the traditions appropriated here), a resoundingly hypnotic attempt to blend Indian sounds with jazz. While Gupta combines a rich variety of styles here – film music, bhangra, trip-hop, carnatic songs and classical ragas – the f-word doesn’t apply. There’s a whole lot of fusing going on, but this isn’t fusion. Instead, it’s a suite of hypnotic, virtuosic grooves on simple, catchy themes, embellished by a mind-warping number of textures that float in and out of the mix. It ranks with the Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack and the Electric Prunes’ Mass in F Minor as a classic of its kind, and though it’s generally a lot more subtle, there are places where it rivals those 60s classics for grin-inducing psychedelic excess: if you can hear this all the way through without smiling, you have a heart of ice. Essentially, this is the Focus Trio, Gupta leading the band on drums and tabla this time out with his longtime bandmate Cary on piano and a variety of electric keyboards, plus the renowned Indian master Anindo Chaterjee on tabla, Ramesh Misra on sarangi fiddle, Srinivas Reddy on sitar, David Boyce on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Prasant Radhakrishnan on carnatic sax, Charith Premawardanam on violin and the Trio’s David Ewell on upright bass.

The album opens with a terse, murky instrumental cover of carnatic song by Ustad Badi Ghulam Ali Khan on a theme of longing and impatience, the band maintaining a distant plaintiveness all the way through. They segue from there into a series of three pieces inspired by Indian film scores from the 50s and 60s, textures shifting in and out of the mix, Cary moving from wah-wah electric piano to woozy synthesizer layers and then echoey Wurlitzer as the rhythm morphs into a soul-funk groove. In places Cary’s terse staccato riffs run through a delay effect, taking on an electric guitar tone. The fifth track, Walk with Me strips the production down to a straight-up jazz piano song that works a catchy, hypnotic hook aggressively and warmly, Cary descending on the following track to the low depths he so excels at, driving it with a subterranean pulse that builds suspense all the way up to its quietly enigmatic conclusion.

From there, they bring back all the textures with tabla, reverb electric piano, what seems like a thousand drum loops (although those could be live – it’s hard to focus very closely on music that shifts shape as artfully and mysteriously as this does) and eventually a balmy sax interlude. And finally, after seven tracks, they reach a full stop. The last three cuts are a traditional sarangi piece imaginatively redone with blippy, futuristic electric keys contrasting vividly with dusky, bucolic tabla, an ebulliently atmospheric, jazzed-up raga and a trance-inducing cover of Miles Davis’ Blue in Green set to an insistent percussion loop and tabla way up in the mix. Gupta and band play the cd release show for this one at Aaron Davis Hall uptown on Oct 19 at 7:30 PM, free w/rsvp.

October 15, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment