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.

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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: Debashish Bhattacharya – O Shakuntala!

Debashish Bhattacharya is one of the world’s most extraordinary and innovative slide guitarists. Since the 1990s he’s fused influences from all over India as well as the west, creating a style which is both hypnotic and fiery. Bhattacharya continues to push the envelope: it would not be hyperbole to mention him alongside Ravi Shankar. This new cd follows the arc of an ancient Sanskrit love epic, Bhattacharya playing three self-designed slide guitars and accompanied by three percussionists, Chitrangana Agle Reshwal and Charu Hariharan as well as his brother Subhasis. A blend of trancelike Hindustani sounds, southern ragas and an incisive, western-influenced melodicism, Bhattacharya’s guitars ring and reverberate, often in the style of a sitar. As fast a player as he can be, most of the songs here are warmly contemplative, often plaintive.

Basically, this a love story interrupted: king marries a beautiful woman, they separate but happily reunite at the end. Most of the instrumentals here are long, clocking in at seven minutes or more. Bhattacharya swoops and dives to the lowest registers, then hangs on insistent, anguished phrases, hammering them home for all they’re worth. The individual tracks vividly illustrate the storyline: their bouncy, optimistic central theme; the courtship cast as a stately march; the stormy fire of the marriage ceremony, the pensive evocation of their time apart and their reunion, surprisingly lush and peaceful. When he’s not providing jangly, clanging ambience, Bhattacharya ornaments the melodies with a variety of attacks from wild sitar-inflected lines to some pretty, pointillistic playing that wouldn’t be out of place in bluegrass. The polyrhythms enhance the otherworldliness of much of the album. Cutting-edge yet with an ancient feel, it’s another triumph for Bhattacharya: having won the BBC World Music Award in 2007 and a Grammy nomination last year, he’s having trouble doing anything wrong right now. The album is out in the US right now, due out in the UK on July 13.

July 6, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment