Richard Bennett Reinvents Ragas at the Rubin Museum This Friday

by delarue

It’s easy to play ragas on the piano. Right? It’s even easier than playing rock – you don’t even have to change chords! And make sure you ride the pedal because you want a big pool of sound, like the drone of a sitar.

Umm…actually, it’s REALLY HARD to play ragas on the piano because there isn’t a set of sympathetic drone strings like there are on the sitar (yeah, there’s an overtone series in the piano, which we can get into later). The main challenge is to play with the same kind of restraint that the great sitarists – Ravi Shankar, Shujaat Khan and the rest – have relied on far more than pyrotechnic speed. Pianist Richard Bennett tackles that challenge with passion and precision on his album New York City Swara, streaming at Bandcamp. He’s leading a trio with Indrajit Roy Chowdhury on sitar and Naren Budkhar on tabla tomorrow evening,, Friday, March 20 at 7 PM in the sonically excellent downstairs auditorium at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 W 17th St. just east of 7th Ave. Cover is $20.

Listening to his 2011 album Noir & B, it’s easy to see how Bennett would gravitate toward Indian music: lingering phrases and variations abound. Each of the tracks on New York City Swara references a classic Indian raga, with embellishments and improvisation that reflect the spirit of classical Indian music as they take the tradition to new places. The opening track, The Swan Swoons, is a triptych, Bennett doubling pensively on melodica as it opens, violinist Aran Ramamurthy gracefully introducing the tune over Budhkhar’s dancing tabla. They seem to solve the drone issue with a low-key, oscillating electronic texture that fades away from Bennett’s incisive yet ultimately hypnotic drive on the second part. A close listen reveals how artfully the pianist veers between scales and passing tones, adding tension and suspense.

Light dubwise electronic touches figure throughout the rest of the album. Restless, noirish strings and eerily glimmering piano figures flicker throughout the diptych that follows, building to an achingly Middle Eastern-inflected theme fueled by Ramamurthy’s violin. Then Bennett fips the script after that with a swaying, trip-hop inflected pastoral stroll with an early Pat Metheny feel. After that, there’s a bouncy, echoey rainy-day (pre-monsoon?) electric piano-and-violin theme.

The borough of Brooklyn is portrayed via a murkily intense, cinematic boogie-woogie groove, then Bennett brings it down with a trippily vamping acoustic-electric theme. The highlight of the album, a triumph of terseness and taste for Bennett, is the increasingly menacing, Satie-esque, staccato nocturnal theme that follows. Bennett chooses to end the album counterintuitively, maintaining the intensity with a hard-edged solo piano reprise of the introductory melody.