Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Marc Cary Electrifies the Jazz Standard

Marc Cary‘s Focus Trio is well-named. The pyrotechnic, perennially soulful pianist and his longtime drummer Sameer Gupta share a close cameraderie – Gupta’s reliance on toms where other drummers would use cymbals underscores Cary’s relentlessly rhythmic drive and gravitas. Yet for all Cary’s hard-hitting, magisterial intensity, he has an unexpectedly wry wit. Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard he juxtaposed that good-natured humor with the spine-tingling power he’s best known for. Despite the gloomy skies overhead, it was strange to see that the club wasn’t sold out, although there were plenty of A-listers who’d come out to enjoy the ride, Joe Locke and Renee Rosnes among them.

It didn’t take Cary long to go deep into the music and get completely lost in it, to the extent of forgetting song titles and losing track of time. At the end of the early set, realizing he’d gone past curfew, he did a closing number anyway, a characteristic blend of grit and blues-infused lyricism in 10/4 which he said was inspired by repeated visits to the Chappaquiddick Indian reservation in Massachusetts: “Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!”

Getting to that point was a rich and stormy experience. Most of the trio’s material drew on the group’s new Four Directions album, bassist Rashaan Carter sometimes locking with Cary’s piledriver lefthand, other times – especially when Carter switched to Fender bass – coloring the material with a dancing, trebly timbre. Cary’s fiery volleys of block chords alternated with spacious passages where the pianist would back off a bit and then add a little texture or a gentle phrase from the synth he’d perched on top of the piano. And most of the time the effect, whether a wash of strings or a hint of organ, enhanced the intensity rather than adding a comedic effect – although there were a few moments like that, one where Carter took the idea and flew with it on the Fender through a long series of woozy, tremoloing chords.

Cary prefaced a Jackie McLean tune with an anecdote about eavesdropping on McLean and Arthur Taylor grousing about how to get their new-jack supporting cast to take their game to the next level. He brought up rising star alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin to guest on a raga, a tough assignment since she was limited to jamming out on a single mode, but she signaled in on Gupta’s elegantly flurrying tabla and added a jaunty, crystalline-toned flair. They turbocharged He Who Hops Around – which nicks the bassline from Dizzy Gillespie’s Manteca – juxtaposing lickety-split swing with leaping piano and bass motives and then an unexpected clave groove from Gupta, and also ramped up the energy on Betty’s Waltz, a stirring, bittersweetly assertive Betty Carter homage from the new album. Cary’s steely chordal assault anchoring an expanding melody that was as plaintive as it was powerful. It is never safe to say that any one player is the best on any particular instrument, but this show left the undeniable feeling that there is no other pianist who employs virtuoso chops to deliver emotional impact more effectively than Marc Cary. One final thought: have he and Kenny Garrett ever shared a stage? That could be really electrifying.

December 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marc Cary Expands His Sonic Spectrum with His New Focus Trio Album

While Marc Cary is one of the most distinctive pianists in jazz, he’s also one of the more eclectic. His new album Four Directions with his Focus Trio features longtime drummer Sameer Gupta, with the bass chair being shared, sometimes jointly, by Burniss Earl Travis and Rashaan Carter. Some of this is Cary at his steely, darkly majestic best, in the same vein as his richly vivid solo Abbey Lincoln homage, For the Love of Abbey, which came out earlier this year. But Cary is also a funkmeister, and there are slightly more lighthearted moments here too. But even the most off-the-cuff track, Todi Blues – which is basically a one-chord jam with layers of various electronic keys and twin basses – has a distant, nocturnally glimmering unease.

Waltz Betty Waltz, a Betty Carter tribute, is characteristically purist, broodingly magisterial Cary, a syncopated bounce that sets biting chromatics against Ellingtonian blues. Open Baby brings an Angelo Badalementi-esque apprehension to a disarmingly simple Rhodes tune.  He Who Hops Around might just as well be called He Who Hops Around Forever, working gingerly wary allusions against a droll pogo-stick octave riff.

Terreon Gully’s Tanktified captures both the sternness and propulsiveness of gospel music, with a wry Bill Withers quote. Boom, one of the best tracks here, lets Cary hold the center much of the time with his hard-hitting block chords underpinning a slasher righthand attack, further spiced by polyrhythmic bass/drums conversations and a surprisingly calm outro.  Ready or Not makes a good segue, the bass finally succeeding in pulling Cary out of the murk and getting  him to bounce around, up to some wry rhythmic jousting.

John McLaughlin’s  Spectrum gets remade as a pretty straight-up swing tune, albeit with Cary on  Rhodes, and it works surprisingly well. They pick up the raging energy again with the swaying, hypnotically rhythmic Indigenous and close with Outside My Window, a sense of menace gradually and vividly emerging from the one extended passage where Cary indulges his well-known fondness for Indian classical music. It’s deep, it’s enigmatic and it’s everything you would expect from this lyrical powerhouse and his sympatico supporting cast.

December 3, 2013 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Glimmering Majestic Intensity: the Marc Cary Focus Trio Live 2009

Often the greatest albums take the longest to truly appreciate: this is one of them. Majestic, intense and powerful, the Marc Cary Focus Trio’s latest brilliant album, Live 2009 came out a few months ago. More than anything the jazz pianist has done yet, this one solidifies an already well-deserved reputation as a rugged individualist and synthesizer of global sounds. His relentless lefthand attack evokes McCoy Tyner in places, but Cary’s sound is unique, and it’s deep. He’ll hammer out a low-register groove until the piano is literally reverberating and then let it ring out as he judiciously builds a melody over it. Cary’s style is as rooted in classical music – both western and eastern – as it is in jazz, with a strong sense of history, both musically and in the broader sense of the word. Cary created the Focus Trio for the purpose of cross-pollination: this album continues on that path. To call it revolutionary would not be an overstatement.

They begin with a magisterial, saturnine version of Round Midnight, David Ewell’s hypnotic bass pulse hinting at bossa nova, Cary working an octave for the better part of three minutes against the melody. When he switches to echoey Rhodes electric piano for a second as Sameer Gupta’s drums begin to rumble, the effect is stunning. Cary’s glimmering, Middle Eastern-infused solo builds to a characteristically towering intensity…and then segues into what’s essentially another one-chord jam. Attachment, which also appears in a radically rearranged version on Sameer Gupta’s new Namaskar album, was inspired by a rainy season raga from the classical Indian repertoire. Here, Gupta leads the band in a spot-on, cinematic evocation of a summer storm that grows from a drizzle with lights-along-the-pavement piano and cloudbursting drums. Their version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie #1, aptly titled Twilight, is as rubato as Satie would have wanted, working up to hypnotic insistence out of a long, majestically rumbling crescendo to a dark shuffle groove.

Complete with a sample of Malcolm X discussing revolution, Runnin’ Out of Time vividly and ominously alludes to the price of not revolting via a catchy four-chord hook over a triplet bass pulse. Slow Blues for MLK reveals how amazing Dr. King’s rhythm was: the band play along to a sample of him working a crowd (reminding how revolution isn’t just local, it’s global) literally without missing a beat. A co-write with Bismillah Khan hitches a dark soul melody to Indian ambience; Jackie McLean’s Minor March is reinvented as a bitter, bone-crushing anthem, followed on a more plaintive note by a jagged, wounded version of Abbey Lincoln’s My Love Is You, Cary setting the tone early on by going inside the piano, brushing the strings for an eerie autoharp effect. The rest of the album includes a brisk, scurrying swing cover of the Broadway standard Just in Time, a playful exercise in contrasts between woozy portamento synthesizer and low lefthand piano percussion, and CD Changer, an Abbey Road-style suite featuring an intense, percussive latin vamp, a wary bass solo lowlit by Cary’s glimmering, crushed-glass intensity and finally the playful nudge of an unexpectedly silly synthesizer solo, as if to say, ok, it’s my turn now. Cary’s doing a one-off gig at the Blue Note on 11/22; if jazz is your thing and you’re in New York, you’d be crazy to miss it.

November 10, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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