[originally published at Lucid Culture's sister blog New York Music Daily]
The Sachal Studios Orchestra‘s latest album Jazz and All That is more all that than it is jazz – and it is all that, most definitely. The Pakistani orchestral ensemble plays Bollywood-style versions of popular Western themes with a titanic, epic Mahlerian/Spector-esque power, driven mainly by a massive string section. Their shtick is to substitute South Asian instruments like sitar, sarangi, wood flute and tabla in place of piano, sax or drum kit when it comes time for solos. They also prove perfectly competent at playing styles from around the world in their original idioms, without any distinguishable Pakistani/Indian flavor, demonstrated here via a vividly Celtic-tinged version of Morning Has Broken and a lavish, string-driven cover of Jobim’s iconic bossa nova hit, Wave. They’re at Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center at 8 PM on Nov 22 and 23, where they’ll be collaborating with Wynton Marsalis’ JALC Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more potentially explosive cross-cultural orchestral collaboration on any New York stage in recent memory.
The album opens with a full-throttle vamp through Stevie Wonder’s You’ve Got It Bad Girl, with sitar, flute and harmonium over a Bacharach-esque groove. The French chanson favorite If You Go Away (Si Tu Dois Partir) is as much art-rock as it is cinematic theme, a long, sweeping crescendo building as the thicket of percussion grows denser, handing off to terse vibraphone and then piano solos. Moonlight in Vermont opens with a conversation between sitar and fiddle, then a slide guitar, a hypnotically tricky, rhythmic but aptly dreamy reinterpretation that may well be the best version of this old chesnut ever recorded.
Monsoon, by Wazir Afzal, a trip-hop song, is the most hypnotic number here, flavored with moody harmonica, a long trumpet solo handing off to the sitar. The orchestra’s version of the Pink Panther theme is oldschool Bollywood as S.D. Burman would have done it; they wait til the fourth time through the verse to go completely over-the-top with the sitar. The comedy continues with Ponteio, by Edu Lobo, redone as Pakistani disco with a jawharp intro, bass flute and then harmonica adding gravitas to this otherwise airy vamp. And to the orchestra’s massive credit – pun intended – they manage not only to not butcher Eleanor Rigby, but to beef up the original’s macabre surrealism with a barrage of strings which actually push the delicately nuanced sitar line out of the sonic picture.
The worst song on the album is the weepy early 90s REM hit Everybody Hurts…but by eliminating the vocals and doing it as a stunningly simple Americana waltz, albeit with stark traditional fiddle and harmonium, it’s completely transformed into a catchy lullaby. The best and longest song on the album is the Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays tune To the End of the World, which they reinvent as an uneasily glimmering Isaac Hayes-style crime-jazz theme, bluesy piano and dancing bass paired off against the sitar over a black velvet groove. The Dave Brubeck classic Blue Rondo a la Turk is the closest thing to the original here: lavish as it is, the sitar lead sticks very close to Brubeck’s piano line. And Kafi Jazz (Five Rivers), by Baqir Abbas has the sitar leading a lush, uneasy bossa groove, the tsunami of strings again subsuming the lead instruments, nimble acoustic guitar and then a sitar/guitar exchange brightening the mist. Fans of all of the above artists will find this anything from exhilarating to maddeningly weird to LMAO funny, all of which seem to be the point of this irrepressible large ensemble.