New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: indian music

The Flute Raman Trio Weave a Magical Textural Web to Close Out the Drive East Festival

Yesterday evening was the final night of the New York edition of this year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at LaMaMa. Lucky residents of the Bay Area will get to witness the debut of the California version of the festival, which begins Aug 22 at 7 PM with a performance by sarod virtuoso Alam Khan at the Goode Performance Group, 401 Alabama St. in San Francisco. You can get in for $28; keep in mind that year after year, many of the shows here in New York routinely sell out fast

A pickup version of bansuri flutist Raman Kalyan’s Flute Raman Trio gamely rose to the challenge of closing night festivities here. It seemed that the bandleader had brought his whole arsenal of axes, in various shapes and sizes neatly arranged at the front of the stage. He ended up using just four of them, mostly a standard-issue model but also a misty-toned bass flute and a small model for some especially high notes during a crescendo in the evening’s big central number.

The trio began with a relatively brief raga in the north Asian pentatonic scale, the violinist shadowing Kalyan’s spare introductory phrases. As the call and response developed, there came a point where his glissandos and short bursts became impossible to replicate on a stringed instrument, so she backed toward the shadows with more spare, resonant washes. Through rises and falls and hypnotically spiraling motives, they wound up joyously and ended with a flourish.

The centerpiece of the night was raga Rasikapriya, the very final raga in the 72-raga cycle. Perhaps because it’s at the end of such a vast lineage, it’s a gorgeous, often very saturnine theme. Kalyan and the rest of the group seemed to revel the most in the moments where it took on a chromatically slashing, Middle Eastern intensity. The violinist anchored her shivery, sharp ornamentation with grave, low washes while Kalyan spun effortlessly from silken spirals to moody resonance. The mridangam player got plenty of chances to show off every possible variation on the central sixteen-beat cycle and made the most of it, urged onward by bandleader.

The three closed with a medley of catchy carnatic themes, including an especially energetic, downwardly cantering melody recognizable from the previous evening’s concert. The Flute Raman Trio get a second challenge, providing a coda to the San Francisco edition of the festival on Aug 26 at 5 PM; cover is $21.

Advertisements

Thrilling, Purposeful Veena Music from Nirmala Rajasekar at This Year’s Drive East Festival

Last night’s headline performance at this year’s Drive East Festival – the New York edition of one of this hemisphere’s most exciting annual Indian music and dance events – featured Saraswati veena player Nirmala Rajasekar and her kinetic quartet. This time out, Rajasekar – heir to an eight-generation legacy of veena players who also sing – was in a particularly emphatic, rhythmic, purposeful mood. She made breathtaking yet extremely terse use of the instrument’s low register, judiciously ornamenting her often spacious phrases with voltage-spiking upward slides as well as vigorously bending, shivery ornamentation. The material spanned the centuries, from ancient carnatic themes to the late 20th century “Recent, to us, means the last hundred years,” Rajasekar grinned.

The group behind her – Balaji Chandran on ghatam, Srinivasan Venkatakrishnan on mridangam and her daughter on vocals – supplied a rippling, kaleidoscopic backdrop. They got the concert going with a goodnatured take of a Sri Thiruvotriyur Thyagyyar composition utilizing raga Sahana, rising from a thoughtful, spare alap to a jaunty doublespeed romp.

Mother and daughter sang a salute to Ganesh by Sri Papanasan Sivan, utilizing raga Tilang, over a clickety-clack swing that was practically a clave.  The high point of the concert was a thrilling, dynamically rich take of Sri Shamya Shatri’s Mari Vere Gathi, on raga Anandha Bhairavi, a theme that originated in folk music. Singing without a mic, Rajasekar wrung every ounce of suspense from its allusive, often brooding modes, through an uneasily steady introduction through insistent peaks, to a delicious series of downwardly stairstepping riffs.

Much as this was about adrenaline, it was also about sly rhythmic jousting, a trope that the group would work to the point where they’d almost run out the clock, at the end of a rainmaker rage by fellow veena player and composer Shri Muthuswami Dikshidhar. Sometimes coyly, sometimes strikingly, Rajasekar interpolated snippets of other ragas, especially early on before she led the percussionists on a seemingly endless tour of rhythmic ideas.

The group closed with a brief but dramatic and often fiery ode to bravery and then a tantalizingly short, benedictory outro spiced with the shadowy, vigorously ornamented lows that Rajasekar had been working so memorably throughout the evening. For those on the west coast, she’s playing the San Francisco edition of the Drive East Festival at the Goode Performing Group Annex at 401 Alabama St. on Aug 25 at 8:30 PM; tix are $23. And the New York festival concludes today, Aug 19, at LaMaMa at 66 E 4th St. with dance starting in the afternoon and then a 5 PM concert featuring carnatic music for bansuri with the Flute Raman Trio. You can get in for $21.

Win Free Tickets to New York’s Most Exciting Indian Music Festival

This year’s Drive East Festival of Indian music and classical arts takes place this August 13-19 at LaMama at 66 E 4th St. – and you can get in free! For the third year in a row, New York Music Daily is giving away two free tickets to each musical performance:

Acclaimed Hindustani spiritual singer Rattan Mohan Sharma on Aug 13 at 7 PM
WE HAVE A WINNER

Vishal Vaid singing rapturous ghazals on Aug 14 at 8:30 PM

Rising star santoor player Vinay Desai on Aug 15 at 7:15 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

The mesmerizing Navatman Music Collective – the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere – on Aug 16 at 7:15 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

Nirmala Rajasekar and Group playing magical Saraswati veena music on Aug 18 at 8:30 PM

The Flute Raman Trio playing mystical, centuries-old bansuri repertoire on Aug 19 at 5 PM WE HAVE A WINNER

Tickets are first come, first served. Only one pair of tickets per person, please. To win, specify which concert you want and send an email to lucidculture [at] gmail [dot] com. Tickets will be available at the box office for pickup on the day of the show.

A Deliciously Psychedelic Album and a Saturday Night Barbes Show by One of New York’s Best Bands

Lately Bombay Rickey are calling themselves “operatic surf noir.” What’s coolest about that observation is that this irrepressible, individualistic group realize just how dark a lot of surf rock is – and how much grand guignol there is in opera. In reality, the only real western opera references in their music are channeled via frontwoman/accordionist/sitarist Kamala Sankaram’s spectacular, practically five-octave vocals. Otherwise the group transcend their origins as a Yma Sumac cover band, mashing up cumbia, Bollywood, spaghetti western, brassy Nancy Sinatra Vegas noir and even classical ragas into a wildly psychedelic, danceable vindaloo. Their new album Electric Bhairavi is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re headlining their usual haunt, Barbes, this Saturday night at 10 PM.

The album title refers to the Indian goddess: Bhairavi is Lord Shiva’s squeeze, an eastern counterpart of sorts to Hera in Greek mythology. While the band can jam like crazy in concert, the new album is surprisingly more terse. The first track is a wildly psychedelic, Bollywoodized reinvention of the old Yma Sumac hit Virgenes del Sol, Sankaram vocalizing with tongue-in-cheek, pointillistic, Verdi-ish flair over Drew Fleming’s spiky guitar, alto saxophonist Jeff Hudgins adding a luscious solo packed with otherworldly microtones and chromatics.

The group kick off Frantic with a scream: from there, they veer from Fleming’s growling guitar against Sankaram’s flitting accordion, down to a pulsing, insectile, distangly bhangra-tinged interlude where drummer Brian Adler gets his hardware flickering, Hudgins’ sax channeling a neon-crazed moth. Kohraa, one of the band’s catchiest and most wickedly serpentine live numbers, has a slinky guaguanco beat and an uneasy interweave of surf guitar, accordion and sax. Sankaram blends allure and nuance in this beachy reminiscence.

Bhonkers – a typical title for this band – leaps between a wistfully opaque, accordion-fueled raga theme and tinges of sunbaked border rock. Likewise, Megalodon – saluting a sea monster who’s been extinct for forty thousand years – alternates between lush majesty and surf drive, Adler and bassist Gil Smuskowitz’s pulsing, syncopated riff signaling the charge.

Gopher is classic Bombay Rickey, a sly mashup of mambo, psychedelic cumbia and Bollywood. Sankaram’s droll Betty Boop accents bring to mind another  brilliant New York singer, Rachelle Garniez, in similarly sardonic mode, Hudgins and Fleming both kicking in with bristling solos. LIkewise, with Sa-4-5, they make dramatic raga-rock out of a spine-tingling, well-known Indian carnatic vocal riff.

Meri Aakhon Mein Ek Sapna Hai brings a purloined Meters strut back full circle from Bollywood: this band can really jam out the funk when they want, Hudgins pulling out all the microtonal stops as he weaves around, Sankaram reaching back for extra power in her vocalese solo during a long, hypnotic interlude over Adler’s tabla. 

The album’s most brooding track, Cowboy & Indian is a reference to band heritage – Fleming is a native Texan while the California-born Sankaram’s background is Indian. It’s an unexpectedly elegaic southwestern gothic ballad: “Midnight comes when you least expect it, but springtime will never come again,” the two harmonize. 

They wind up the record with the towering, epic raga-rock title track, rising from Sankaram’s mystical sitar intro to a mighty, guitar-fueled sway. Like the group’s previous release, Cinefonia – rated best debut album of 2014 here – this one will end up on the list of 2018’s best albums at the end of the year

A Transcendent, Trance-Inducing Night of Psychedelic Indian Soul at Zeshan B’s Lincoln Center Debut

In his Lincoln Center debut last week, Chicago soul singer Zeshan B delivered one of the most rivetingly psychedelic, impassioned, fearlessly relevant performances at any New York venue this year. Introducing the Chicago-born singer/harmonium player and his fantastic band, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused that he “Encompasses every yummy kind of music there is,” which wasn’t a stretch. In over an hour onstage, he and his slinky, surreal, spot-on four-piece backing band opened with some chill funk, closed with a spine-tingling oldschool soul anthem, in between shifting between new psychedelic arrangements of ancient Indian ghazals, some Bollywood, Sufi balladry, hints of hip-hop and even a couple of sublimely expert detours toward medieval Jewish cantorial music. Is there anything this guy CAN’T sing?

Writer Amy Schiller, ensconced in the front row of the VIP area, quipped that Zeshan B’s brand-new signature style should be called “ghazpel.”

The group’s vampy, impassioned opening number, Breaking Point, rose to a brief guitar solo from the brilliantly incisive Samuel Moesching over the serpentine pulse of bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Greg Artry. The frontman’s harmonium added a trippy, trebly texture, mingling with Rob Clearfield’s blippy electric piano.

Zeshan B isn’t the only brilliant Indian-American singer fronting a psychedelic band – Kamala Sankaram does the same thing in front of the similarly surreal, amazing Bombay Rickey. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this hopefully expanding subgenre to channel as much wrenching angst or passion as this guy did with his melismatic baritone. He and the band held the crowd transfixed with their first swaying, gorgeously moody minor-key ghazal, singing in Urdu, rising to an angst-fueled peak, Moesching adding a subtly brooding a wah-wah guitar solo before the bandleader went deep into the grit. Then he went up into the rafters with his powerful falsetto. As he mentioned in passing later in the show, Urdu soul is a real genre. He credited his journalist dad, who reported on African-American music and culture in the 60s and 70s, as a major influence.

The group didn’t waste any time flipping the script, reinventing the Jimmy Cliff ballad Hard Road to Travel as indomitable oldschool Smokey Robinson soul in 12/8 time. Watching a Punjabi-American bring a Jamaican reggae hit full circle, back to its original inspiration, was a real trip; Zeshan B used the outro to air out his falsetto again. A dramatic, mystical invocation that drew on his time as a teenage muezzin at the neighborhood mosque served as the intro to the brisk, anthemic Lonely Man.

Zeshan B has a powerful populist streak. Chicago has been blighted by gentrification almost as devastatingly as New York, and he related how his old neighborhood has been decimated to the point of unrecognizability, just like Williamsburg and Bushwick. He underscored the aftereffects in the longing and nostalgia of a lilting ballad that segued into a slowly crescendoing, echoey interlude. Then with a slow, misty resignation, he and the band built a long launching pad for a big vocal crescendo in Jaane Man, spiced with alternately oscillating and searing Moesching riffage and some wry wah-wah keys from Clearfield.

Zeshan B’s take of Otis Redding’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, just vocals and Clearfield’s piano, took everybody to church. The best song of the night was a brooding minor-key ghazal-rock number, Clearfield’s bitingly trebly keys slithering over a muted swing and Moesching’s jagged accents. Their full-band take of George Perkins’ 1970 cult favorite protest-soul anthem Cryin in the Streets was unexpectedly brief, although the group raised the the rafters with Brown Power, Zeshan B’s affirmation of solidarity among brown-skinned people around the globe. Moesching chopped his chords with a ferocity to match Zeshan B’s insistence that “We ain’t gonna take it no more from the ivory tower – Brown Power!” 

After a stop at Bonnaroo, his next show is a hometown gig on June 22 at 8 PM at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St. in Chicago; tix are $27. And the next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is tomorrow night, June 7 at 7:30 PM with another fearless firebrand singer and bandleader, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. Get there early if you’re going. 

The Brooklyn Raga Massive Celebrate Six Years of Cutting-Edge, Transcendent New Indian Sounds in Red Hook This Saturday Night

The Brooklyn Raga Massive dedicate themselves to taking indian music to places it’s never been before. But rather than doing the John McLaughlin thing and jazzing up ancient Indian melodies, they’re Indianizing jazz, soul and Middle Eastern music, and the avant garde – and also playing their own updates on the classic raga themes that the group’s core members have immersed themselves in over the years. Their rotating talent base comprises some of New York’s best musicians, and they have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, who are headlining the group’s sixth anniversary show this Saturday night, June 2, starting at 7:30 PM at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. Cover is $30.

You might wonder why they’d be doing this in Red Hook. That’s because the Raga Massive also have a weekly Thursday night residency around the bend at the Jalopy. Saturday night’s two opening acts are excellent as well. The first one, pointillistically psychedelic instrumental trio House of Waters are led by national champion hammered dulcimer player Max ZT. They’re not an Indian band per se – they sound like no other band on the planet – but they’re at home with classical Indian melodies. Afterward, Hindustani/North Indian singer Samarth Nagarkar goes deep into classical repertoire, backed by harmonium and tabla.

The Women’s Raga Massive’s most recent show was a frequently transcendent Saturday night concert at the end of March at Joe’s Pub. The first half featured a cycle of small-group improvisations; the second was dedicated to transgressive medieval Indian composer and poet Meera Bai, who is sort of the female Rumi. It could also be said that Rumi was the male Meera – their mysticism and angst-fueled, lovelorn themes disguised as religious poetry have a lot in common. “She’s sort of the original feminist – she followed her heart, she followed her spirit,” co-leader and violinist Trina Basu explained beforehand.

The night’s lineup was spectacular. True to their inclusive spirit, the Women’s Raga Massive don’t necessarily exclude dudes (there were a couple, Max ZT and bassist Perry Wortman, on this particular bill). Anjna Swaminathan played violin alongside Basu, with Amali Premawardhana on cello, Camila Celin on guitar and sarod, Roshni Samlal on tabla and  Lauren Crump on percussion. Massive co-leader and singer Priya Darshini fronted the group, alongside Morley Kamen.

Celin opened the night with a starry, searching, reverb-infused acoustic guitar solo over an ever-present recorded drone. Crump joined her as the music shifted toward a hypnotic, Malian-tinged duskcore groove that grew funkier and then more shadowy. From there a parade of musicians followed in turn.

Samlal and Crump built a scampering yet suspenseful percussion interlude. Swaminathan then joined Samlal, slowly rising from melismatic flickers and surreal echo phrases to restless chromatic riffage. Premawardhana came up to start a lively, catchy cello-violin conversation, spanning pretty much the entire sonic spectrum available to a string band. The addition of Basu completed the echoey picture as the music grew more phantasmagorical and sepulchral. Premawardhana’s rich, low washes drove the sound upward and then back to ghostly territory. Eventually, Morley joined them and took the music in the direction of jazz poetry and new age ambience.

Basu and Premawardhana’s lyrical string ensemble Karavika, joined by Max ZT, played their big crowd-pleaser, Sunrise, first digging in hard for a triumphant, heroic sway over bubbling tabla and dulcimer, then bringing the central raga theme front and center, with a sudden cadenza out. The Women’s Raga Massive’s mashup of a Meera piece with raga Darbari Kanada followed a suspenseful, pouncing, tangoish groove, violins uneasily soaring overhead.

The full ensemble closed the night with the epic Khusro meets Mirabai. Slowly coalescing as bass, dulcimer and finally violins carried the theme, Darshini pulled the majestic swaying raga together with as much insistence as longing, up to a long stampede out. Because this group relies so much on improvisation, this Saturday’s show will no doubt be completely different, if with similarly irrepressible imagination and spirited playing. You can get lost in Red Hook Saturday night.

A View of Classic Ragas From Five Thousand Feet by Sitar Virtuoso Shahid Parvez Khan

Saturday night at Roulette, sitar player Shahid Parvez Khan brought the same vast game plan to two completely different ragas. Much as improvisation is the central focus of classical Indian music, and there were plenty of electrifying jams at this show, it became clear early on that Khan had come up with a devilishly clever architecture for how he wanted to entertain the crowd.

Job one was delayed gratification, to tease them with one implied resolution after another until finally it made sense to ease into a comfortable crescendo, finally tying the tension together. Job two was to make the performance just as fun as it was artfully conceived, and Khan did that incessantly, with a killer sense of humor. Job three was thrills and chills, which he usually but not always saved for the codas at the end, in over two hours onstage with tabla wizard Nittin Mitta and a tanpura player who provided an aptly subtle drone behind them.

Khan opened the first raga with a very long, minimalist alap (improvisation), working with an increaingly rhythmic insistence toward but hardly ever reaching the octave that loomed just above his hypnotically emphatic, circular phrasing. When Mitta joined the fray, it seemed almost almost an afterthought, considering how much Khan had been his own drummer up to that point. As the piece went on, Khan brought his riffs closer and closer together as the two shifted gears, working toward overdrve.

Suddenly the concept became clear: while they weren’t taking the music quite doublespeed, what Khan had done was to bring those adrift riffs closer and closer together until he’d finally crystallized them. Likewise, it became clear that this raga was more about beats than lavish melody. After he and Mitta had interwoven a vertigo-inducing series of polyrhythms, a series of fiery sitar cascades punctuated rising and falling waves, through a trick ending or two, down to a sudden, unresolved conclusion.

The second raga was a brooding nocturne. Again, Khan resisted any easy resolution, putting on a clinic in implied melody, letting the audience’s ears fill in the blanks. This time the recurrent trope was stratospherically high, keening, theremin-like bends, creating sudden spikes of aching intensity. Mitta matched Khan’s plaintive cantabile approach, this time leaving the fireworks to the sitar. Khan took the closing gat out with an increasingly towering series of rapidfire climbs…when he wasn’t hitting on a phrase, then peeking out mischievously at the crowd as he let them fade, forsaken for the next one. If one riff doesn’t work, time to try another! It’s seldom that a piece of music could be so funny at times, yet ultimately so poignant.

Robert Browning Associates, who over the past few years have become a valued resource in bringing music from around the world to this city, staged this concert as part of their World in Trance series at Roulette, which concludes tonight, April 29 at 8 PM with a performance by Iranian ney flute player Hossein Oumoumi and his ensemble. Cover is $30 and worth it.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Aakash Mittal at National Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

Punjabtronix Put on a Pulsing, Hauntingly Hypnotic Dance Party at the Kennedy Center

UK Punjabi dance band Punjabtronix’s show last night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was a hypnotic, undulating, dynamically rich exploration of how far sounds from the rich melting pot around the India-Pakistan border can go. As the concert began, they took their time getting the groove up and running, the keening twin algoza flutes and tumbi lute of multi-instrumentalist Vijay Yamla set to a quasi trip-hop beat from Naresh Kukki’s big dhol bass drum in tandem with the thumps emanating from the mixing desks manned by DJ Swami and his co-engineer. What was live, what was being looped, and what was instrumental karaoke? It was hard to tell. As the textures mingled in the murky mist, that trance-inducing atmosphere set the tone for the rest of the night, John Minton’s shapeshifting projections pulsing in and out behind the band. You can watch most of the show here.

By all accounts, this show was better than the one in Queens the night before. Flushing Town Hall has a reputation for excellent sound, but word on the street was that Punjabtronix didn’t get to experience that (this blog wasn’t in the house for that one). Here, the mix had the clarity this band needs to create the full psychedelic experience. That first number was spiced with uneasy, lingering David Gilmour-esque lead guitar lines. Then sarangi player Dheera Singh took the stage for a take of the popular Punjabi folk song Jugni, Kukki’s hammering dhol polyrhytms veering close to the edge, singer Gurtej Singh energizing the crowd with his passionate, melismatic baritone.

The followed with Chhalla, the band’s frontman alluding that they were going to get this one in to pre-empt the inevitable audience requests. As Singh swayed and pounced, decked out in a regal blue-and-bold traditional suit and headdress, it was easy to see why people would want to hear the big, catchy anthem. They made moody, modal acid jazz out of another popular folk tune, Zindabad, the plinks of the sarangi and Singh’s insistent vocal riffs cutting through the blippy electronic backdrop, Yamla eventually taking a long, droll, warpy upper-register solo on the bugchu, a surreal stringed instrument that looks like a cross between an Ethiopian riti fiddle and a tabla drum.

Yamla switched to the stark tumba fiddle for an intense, rustic call-and-response duet with Pujabi “talking drum,” tuned to play stairstepping melodies much like a tabla. The cinematic epic after that celebrated the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, but also took a sobering look at the devastating effects of the British invaders’ partition of India and Pakistan. The uneasy east/west dichotomy was vivid, the traditional instruments solid and resolute against the techy beats.

Yamla gave the serpentine number after that a deadpan jawharp intro then a broodingly pulsing twin flute solo and rapidfire vocals as the the electronic storm loomed in behind him. The group’s final epic was a celebration of cross-pollination in the global Punjabi diaspora, an enveloping swirl of ancient organic textures mingling with the synthetic.

Punjabtronx’s US tour continues with a couple of stops at South by Southwest. Tomorrow night, March 14 they’re at Barcelona, 209 E 6th St, in Austin at 8 PM, then the next night, March 15 they’re at the Palm Door on Sixth, 508 E 6th St., also at 8.