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Category: indian music

A Characteristically Soulful Alice Coltrane Rarity Resurfaces

While Alice Coltrane did not live in the shadow of her iconic husband, her work is too often overlooked. During her life, she was revered as a creator of longscale, spiritually-inspired jazz compositions. She was a talented improviser on the concert harp, organ and piano. There’s a reissue of an obscure, limited-edition 1981 Alice Coltrane album, Kirtan: Turiya Sings, just out and streaming at Spotify. If her better-known music resonates with you, this a special treat because it’s a rare opportunity to hear Coltrane on both vocals and Wurlitzer organ.

Coltrane shared her husband’s love of Indian music and spirituality – her son Ravi, named after Ravi Shankar, produced this album. Here, she takes her time with a series of ancient Indian kirtan themes, singing in Sanskrit in a modulated, often stark alto voice over slowly shifting organ chords. The music draws more on the blues and 19th century African-American spirituals than it does the Indian carnatic tradition, often very anthemically. Listen closely and you’ll discover variations calmly unfolding. And the hypnotic sixth track could be a Doors song. Essentially, these are hymns, easy to sing along to as part of a yoga practice, for meditation or as just plain good chillout music.

A Stunning Ravi Shankar Rarity Rescued From Obscurity

There’s enough Ravi Shankar online to listen to for a year without a break. Needless to say, pretty much every time he sat down with his sitar, the J.S. Bach of Indian music was spine-tingling to witness. Today’s album is a rarity. Ravi Shankar Live in Hollywood 1971 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded at a house concert and only released posthumously. It’s Shankar at his most succinct. In concert, he could and would often go on for hours, but three of the four ragas here are especially brief for him. Poignancy, humor, relentless suspense, spectacular peaks, it’s all here, in slightly smaller but no less psychedelic packages than usual.

He opens with a relatively rare morning raga, Raga Vibhas, slowly and meticulously building a low midrange melody, the sun gradually looming over the horizon as he brightens the textures. Yet immediately, he introduces a persistent chromatic unease. It’s extraordinary how he senses the need to pick up the pace at almost exactly the midway mark, not knowing how this will end! The late introduction of the tabla gives Shankar the chance to drive toward a big crescendo with his clustering phrases. Wryly twinkling riffs draw a chuckle or two, then Shankar focuses in with an incisive attack.

Raga Parameshwari is the centerpiece, the sitarist at the top of his game through another morning raga that goes on for well over fifty minutes. The long, steady, lingering opening alap, Shankar finally descending to rich, suspensefully warpy low tones, also features spare, allusive tabla. The sitar builds intensity with recurrent variations on an allusively chromatic, tantalizingly unresolved rising phrase, then the music warms, rising and falling, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. A momentary, hypnotic, minimalist lull is breathtaking (for everybody, it seems) and signals a first round of rapidfire volleys, supersonic sizzle intermingled within the persistent metallic gleam.

Shankar dedicates the brightly lilting, relatively brief Raga Dunh to the people of Bangladesh, imperiled at the time by a Pakistani invasion. The single, bracingly rising opening riff, plaintive, resonant tones and classic, stairstepping moment in the alap that opens Raga Sindhi Bhairavi only hint at the torrential power Shankar  will generate. Considering its origins, this raga has more Middle Eastern ambience than most of the others in the cycle. And yet, Shankar is just as rambunctiously funny in places as he is slashingly incisive elsewhere. Of all the ragas here, this is the most straightforward and unrelenting, his volleys of tremolo-picking and wild bends rising throughout a long, stunning coda.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Wild Indian-Flavored Dance Tunes on Sunny Jain’s Eclectic, High-Voltage New Album

Sunny Jain‘s new album Phoenix Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a good dance album. It’s a fun guessing game: trying to figure out who’s playing on what tracks is not easy, considering how many people play on them, but their very distinctive, individual voices sometimes give themselves away. Jain being a multi-percussionist – the dhol player and leader of Red Baraat, but also a first-class jazz drummer – the focus of his music is always the rhythm. As you would imagine from how eclectic the projects he’s played in over the years have been, the music here is just as diverse.

That’s definitely Malik Work out in front of the band on the vampy, opening hip-hop tune saluting the world’s everyday heroes. The calmly impassioned voice on the mic in the undulating, qawwali-inflected Where Is Home sounds like Arooj Aftab – and is that Rini on the slashing, carnatically-inflected violin? It could also be Raaginder – or, conceivably, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s Mauro Durante, who’s known for more tartantella-flavored sounds.

The vocals on Say It, a soul-infused, trip-hop-ish number, sound more like the misty, alluring Shilpa Ananth; the slithery bass is probably Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, but Devon Gates, Bubby Lewis and Endea Owens are also on the album somewhere.

I’ll Make It Up To You is one of the album’s most surreal numbers, a snarling Stonesy slide guitar rock tune: that has got to be Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada on guitar – or is that Jonathan Goldberger or Pete Eide showing off his secret inner Keith Richards?

On Pride in Rhythm, a swirly, hypnotic synth-and-percussion number – that’s got to be Rachel Eckroth playing keys – is followed by the album’s title track, a bracing action movie-type sequence with a sax duel at the center. Guessing that’s Pawan Benjamin on the edgy alto and Lauren Sevian on the smoky baritone.

Wild Wild East, an earlier track, gets reinvented in a storming electric bhangra version with carnatic singer Ganavya over a searing electric guitar-driven backdrop. Kushal Gaya’s wildfire vocals on the edgily modal Ja Ja Re Apne Mandirwa, a high-voltage jazz reinvention of a traditional Indian tune, are electrifying: and that has to be Goldberger on guitar here.

They close the album with In and Out, the album’s most traditional tune, at least until the beat goes halfspeed and the roaring electric guitars kick in, take your pick from above for the cast of characters. That sounds like Ganavya and Gaya on vocals again. Damn, this is one of those albums that must have been as fun to play on as it is to listen to – or dance to, for that matter.

A Gorgeously Dark Album of Adventurous, Psychedelic Afghani Rubab Music From Quais Essar

Today’s album is on the shortlist of the best this blog has received over the past couple of years that were patiently waiting their turn on the hard drive here. Qais Essar, whose axe is the Afghani rubab lute, may not be a household word, but he’s attracted the attention of a whole slew of western musicians. His latest album The Ghost You Love Most is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s pretty exotic compared to the bands whose artists play on it. On the other, it’s not that far removed from the Turkish psychedelia or, for that matter, some of the rock-ish sounds that came out of Iran in the 1960s and early 70s.

He opens it with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a spare, slow, haunting anthem that’s practically a Nashville gothic ballad. Christopher Votek’s cello and Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio–Miller’s organ add elegaic lustre behind the stately rhythm section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Thierry Amar on bass and Ray Belli on drums. The ending is even more surreal: they take it doublespeed, making quasi-bluegrass out of a lick seemingly ripped straight from lite-jazz guy Grover Washington Jr.

Essar’s rubab ripples, weaves and flurries frantically throughout the album’s swaying title track, spiced by delicate textures from Kamaljeet Alhuwalia on santoor and Cenk Erodgan on fretless guitar.

Journey to Qaf begins as a chilling, Lynchian dirge, Sheela Bringi’s harp contrasting with the resonance of the cello and Essar’s spare, broodingly emphatic phrasing. They eventually pick up the pace, but never so much that they manage to leave the shadows behind.  Rhitom Sarkar contributes a lingering alap (improvisation) on Indian slide guitar to open Sohini Surf, then Essar takes over and they motor along with a muted surf beat.

The group slow down again for The Simurgh, Essar’s steady, banjo-like lines, echoed by Erodgan’s shivery melismatics over Justin Gray’s stately, rising bass veena. They end the album with a gorgeously bittersweet, pastorally-tinged wordless ballad. It’s music to get completely lost in.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.

Shapeshiftingly Electrifying Indian-Inspired Big Band Jazz by the Modern Art Orchestra

Irrepressible, paradigm-shifting Hungarian ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra‘s latest album is an electrifying blend of Indian music and big band jazz. Bandleader and trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács’ epic 21-track suite Foundations – Yamas and Niyamas is streaming at Spotify. One of his primary intentions in creating this was to demystify current-day Western cliches relating to yoga, as well as underscore the meditative commonalities shared by yoga practice and musical improvisation.

Throughout the suite, dramatically forceful passages contrast with hypnotic ambience, livened with trippy electronics, spoken word, Márton Fenyvesi’s spare acoustic guitar and Veronika Harcsa’s impassioned, usually English-language vocals. The Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s similarly vast reinterpretations of John Coltrane classics are a good point of comparison, although this is the reverse image of that group’s work, Indian music through the prism of jazz rather than jazz themes played as ragas. And this is typically much more energetic.

The band open the suite with a morning prayer tableau, a steady, suspenseful drone that rises with big swells and ripples from throughout the instruments. As a portrait of ahimsa – the concept of nonvolence – a series of fluttering, circling, aggressive riffs gives way to calm. The bandleader provides a warmly triumphant intro, echoed by soprano saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó’s optimistic, sailing lines over a lush, luminous backdrop in their exploration of satya (truthfulness).

A delicious bass trombone loop foreshadows an utterly surreal jazz poetry piece featuring the starry pianos of Béla Szakcsi Lakatos and Gábor Cseke. János Ávéd’s bluesy bansuri flute solo, as the majesty behind him decays to rapt stillness to close the first disc, is one of the album’s high points.

The second disc begins with a contrast between sparse calm and barely controlled mass chaos, Áron Komjáti’s acoustic guitar a centering point. There’s no shortage of irony in how Bacsó and Harcsa channel trippy contentment in the album’s iciest, most echoey interlude.

Circling, tense Darcy James Argue-like phrases intertwine as the atmosphere grows even more hypnotic but energetic. Fekete-Kovács delivers his most lyrical, overtly Indian-tinged solo as the band waft their way into Tapas (referring to the yogic concept of self-discipline rather than Spanish snacks). From there János Ávéd’s ebullient, dynamic tenor sax makes a bridge to brooding svadhana (i.e. introspection). The group wind up the album with Fekete-Kovács’s muted trumpet drifting through the mist and then a benedictory jazz waltz sung by Harcsa.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

A Global Cast of Characters Reinvent Classic Indian Themes With a Massive Webcast

There’s no small irony in that the annual 24-hour Ragas Live Marathon broadcast wouldn’t go global until a moment where live music had been illegalized in most parts of the world. The good news is that this year’s performances – which began as a radio broadcast on little WKCR in Brooklyn – have spread to include artists performing live on their own turf around the world. In keeping with the festival’s esthetic, this year’s lineup features an allstar cast both from within the Indian raga tradition as well as the worlds of jazz, latin music, classical music and klezmer, among other styles. This year it’s streaming at wkcr.org startimg at 7 PM on Nov 21 and going until 7 the following evening, Nov 22, as well as via video link from Pioneer Works.

Past years have featured a lot of jazz musicians who’ve found nirvana in Indian music. As usual, the ever-growing multitudes in the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective, who founded the festival, are widely represented. This year’s stars include but are hardly limited to avant garde icon (and Indian music devotee) Terry Riley, legendary tabla personality Zakir Hussain, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, coastal Venezuelan trance-dance bandleader Betsayda Machado, Middle Eastern jazz trumpet visionary Amir ElSaffar and klezmer powerhouse Andy Statman.

If this sounds intriguing, dial up a random raga on the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s even more massive Ragas Live Festival album, streaming at Bandcamp. Virtually everything on this record – probably the most epic album released by any New York group this century – is worth hearing. It’s been sitting around this blog’s archive for the past couple of years, and a couple of hours’ worth of listening only scratches the surface. For fans of Indian sounds, it’s a serendipitous look at where the music is going – and what we will be enjoying in concert after we liberate ourselves from the lockdown.

Magical Mini-Ragas From Rare 78 RPM Records Now Available on Album

The new compilation How the River Ganges Flows – streaming at Bandcamp – has a rare PR tagline worth repeating. Third Man Records calls it “A transcendent collection of carnatic violin performances captured on 78 RPM disc between 1933 and 1952.” This is their second batch of newly digitized and sonically enhanced tracks from archivist Christopher King’s collection of global rarities. The first one, a mix of mostly unreleased Greek recordings titled Why the Mountains Are Black made the best albums of the year list in 2016. This one threatens to do the same this year.

On one hand, ragas that top out at about the three-and-a-half minute mark would never have existed if not for the limits of early recording technology. Which makes the work of the six violinists here all the more impressive: imagine Tschaikovsky trying to condense the Pathetique Symphony into a three-minute hit.

Each of these guys plays with small-group instrumentation that varies from song to song. Tabla is a ubiquitous presence (and happily very present in the new mixes). Mridangam may also be, although those boomy lows could simply be a by-product of the original recording process.

By comparison, a lot of contemporary Indian violinists are tame: swoops and dives and microtonal magic permeate this record, even beyond the point where an Indian mode diverges furthest from the Western scale. Case in point: Paritosh Seal’s careening melismas and brisk chromatics in Raga Ahir Bhairi.

Seal is also represented on five other tracks. He bends into far limbo and trills meticulously over  a tanpura drone on Raga Darbari Kanada. He leaps and bounds joyously in Raga Sur Malhar, lilts through Raga Bageshree and plays with even more of a singing quality in a recording simply titled Thumri, which speeds up tantalizingly for maybe twenty seconds of a coda. His three-plus minutes of Raga Adana make a bittersweetly gorgeous closer to this lusciously tuneful album, which comes on gatefold vinyl with extensive liner notes plus artwork by R. Crumb.

But the other artists here offer even more fire, flash and breathtaking skill. Shri Gajana Karnad plays Raga Thodi with wicked spirals and rapidfire precision, then basically makes Raga Tilak Kamod into a shivery stand-alone coda.

Muthi and Mani break up a section of Raga Aberi into two 78 sides: the uneasily rippling, quasi-Japanese diatonics seem to be coming from a santoor, but the instrument actually turns out to be a piano. Likewise, Swaram Venkatswamy Naidu makes an A-side and B-side out of Raga Thanam, building a plaintive alap into a similarly brooding duet. The most rustic and weatherbeaten recordings here are T. Chowdiah playing a jaunty bit of Raga Hamir Kalyani and then giving some lightning-fast ornamentation to Raga Manirang. Must listening for Indian music fans.