Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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.

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

Concert Review: Electric Junkyard Gamelan at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/20/10

If there’s a more original band in New York than Electric Junkyard Gamelan, we need to know about them. Their shtick is to take found objects and turn them into percussion instruments, all of them their own creations (they should patent them if they haven’t already). Among their creations tonight: the barp (a drying rack for clothing used as low-register percussion, strung with what looked like rubber bands); the terraphone (a clarinet with a regular reed mouthpiece fastened to a handmade body made from copper tubing); the clayrimba (a perfectly tuned marimba made from clay pots of various sizes) and the cachoptar, sort of a mbira (thumb piano) strung over a section of an old futon frame. The drum kit has kitchen pots in place of cymbals, a plastic pickle drum for a snare, a 20-gallon plastic trashcan for the kick, what looks like the bottoms of several aluminum Chinese takeout pans on a stand for a hi-hat…and a small cast iron skillet on a kick pedal for a cowbell. A discarded circular saw blade became a small gong; half of a school bell became another. Considering that the kit was originally assembled for and required two players, drummer Lee Frisari did a mind-bogglingly impressive job flailing around, half of what she was hitting completely out of her field of vision.

What did their show sound like? Psychedelic, hypnotic, impossible to sit still to. The back room at Barbes was packed but surprisingly, nobody was dancing, considering what a groove they laid down. True to their name, they’re gamelanesque: pointillistic, gently and incisively clattering but also crashing and bashing or slinking and swaying. Several of their songs were basically acoustic trip-hop instrumentals, almost parodies, except that in place of a cold, mechanical drum machine there were four warm bodies rotating betwen instruments. Considering that in Indonesia, gamelans are community organizations where everybody plays pretty much anything (New York’s own gamelan, Gamelan Dharma Swara, of which Electric Junkyard Gamelan’s frontwoman Terry Dame is a member, works the same way), they held true to tradition. Julian Hintz alternated between the aforementioned instruments and another with multicolored rubberbands strung between two wire hangers and rapped on their hip-hop flavored numbers, and didn’t embarrass himself – if he’s the one writing the lyrics, his worldview is smartly aware and his flow is effortlessly smooth, hardcore Brooklyn circa the here and now. One of their later numbers centered around a couple of pairs of Balinese cymbals striking up a ferocious clatter like New Years Day in Chinatown, which was borderline painful considering Barbes’ cozy confines; by contrast, the slinky Space Kitty worked permutations of a woozy bent-note melody on the cachoptar while Life on Mars (an original, not the Bowie song) was mesmerizing and impossible not to get lost in. They also did a funny, fun tribute to their touring van, Fred Beans. Even before the hip-hop lyric and the audience-response part came in, the pans and the gongs were playing off his name – another band’s vehicle should be so proud. They closed with their most Indonesian-sounding number of the night, complete with a big crashing crescendo followed by an impossible series of trick endings. The packed house screamed for an encore and got one, a fiery, conscious hip-hop tune. By now they’d been onstage for over an hour and a half and it was time for the next band – smartly, the waitress had turned on the AC, because considering how hard the four percussionists had been working, they needed it. Electric Junkyard Gamelan do a lot of live shows: watch this space for the next one.

March 20, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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