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Category: indian music

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.

Dreamy, Enchanting Indian Sounds From Falu and Karyshma

Karyshma were basically an Indian jamband back in the 90s when they first started out. What differentiated them from the legions of hippies twenty years earlier who learned a few raga riffs and then tried to make rock out of them is that Karyshma’s core members all came out of Indian traditional music. Their new album Someday – streaming at Soundcloud – is much more oriented toward those deep roots, a mix of starry songs from over the centuries. This auditory thali is a korma spiced to nuanced perfection, rather than the vindaloo of the group’s early years.

They open with Yara, a delicate, slinky vintage Bollywood anthem, frontwoman Falu’s tender melismas rising over a delicate web of acoustic guitar and mandolin textures from Soumya Chatterjee. Gaurav Shah’s moody bansuri flute builds hypnotic crescendos in tandem with the elegant clip-clop Rajasthani beat of Deep Singh’s tabla. It’s a very poetic song, Falu contemplating whether happiness is possible despite separation, and sorrow, and constnnt change. “I try to mend my slit wrists with these broken bangles,” is the crux of the story.

The second number is Bhooli, a ghazal with a similarly warm, bittersweetly pensive vocal, Singh’s flurrying tabla contrasting with a floating backdrop. Beeghi, a gorgeously sweeping monsoon-season nocturne, is even more enveloping, Falu’s voice rising to celestial heights.

Chatterjee’s guitar adds a low-key Americana undercurrent to Nadi, Singh’s swaying rhythm evoking a woman on a swing by the river, missing her boyfriend. They close the album by making a joyously organic dancefloor anthem out of the mystical Raga Bhairavi. Chatterjee breaks out his sarangi and Singh is a one-man percussion orchestra, employing a small arsenal of drums from across the Hindustani subcontinent.

Rare, Individualistic Indian-Inspired World Premieres from the ARC Ensemble

In recent years the ARC Ensemble have made an extraordinary commitment to rescuing the works of relatively unknown but brilliant Jewish composers from obscurity. The latest in their series is the world premiere recording of Chamber Works of Walter Kaufmann, streaming at Spotify. Kaufmann, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1907, fled Prague for the seemingly unusual destination of Mumbai in 1933, just ahead of the Nazis.

The choice of Mumbai was more than just an attempt to find a safe haven: as a student, Kaufmann had fallen in love with Indian music, and that passion would eventually lead him to become one of the foremost European-born authorities on it. After almost a century, his 1936 violin piece based on Raga Shivaranjani remains Air India’s main theme.

This fearlessly individualistic album features string quartets as well as pieces for smaller and larger ensembles (Kaufmann also wrote symphonies and operatic works), all composed during Kaufmann’s time in India. The first work here, played by violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe, is the String Quartet No. 11. It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before. A somber cello drone anchors an enigmatic, whole-tone-centric raga melody that the quartet take dancing in the brief, five-minute opening movement.

The searching quality of the second movement is visceral; the wistfulness afterward evokes both Indian and Celtic music. The four musicians follow the warmly fleeting third movement to a triumphantly strutting coda.

Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat open the Sonata No. 2, Op. 44 for Violin and Piano in the poignant netherworld where carnatic music meets the blues scale, and follow a much livelier tangent: listening to the tracks here in sequence, it becomes clear that Kaufmann doesn’t like to stay in one place very long. Ahfat’s motives ring sparely and spaciously behind Raum’s lyricism in the second movement; the two pick up the pace to bring the piece full circle.

String Quartet No. 7 is basically a raga for strings. It begins lustrously and more chromatically charged, with an uneasily bustling sway and clever echo effects that add unexpected Iranian flavor. The contrast between somber foreshadowing and shivery intensity in the second movement is intense; the stark third movement brings to mind Bartok if he had taken his recording rig across the Indian Ocean instead of the Mediterranean. The group wind it up with a jaunty, acerbic final two movements that Kaufmann manages to wrap up in one big, bouncy ball.

Ahfat and clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas play a clarinet arrangement of the Sonatina No. 12  for Violin and Piano, its broodingly hypnotic ambience punctuated by eerie chimes and more than a distant shadow of klezmer music. The two hit an unexpected romp and ending with a pastorale that’s the most distinctly European interlude here.

Violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join Ahfat and the string quartet for the album’s concluding work, the Septet for Three Violins, Viola, Two Cellos, and Piano. Rimsky-Korsakovian glitter and phantasmagoria pulse through its dynamic shifts, the strings serving as rhythm section much of the time.

Kaufmann was an interesting guy, but sadly his early success in Europe did not springboard the same kind of acclaim elsewhere, and his father and many relatives were murdered by the Nazis. He composed for Bollywood and the radio; became the first conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony (and drew an impressive amount of European talent there); played piano alongside a promising violinist named Albert Einstein; and ended his career at the University of Indiana. Fans of pioneering cross-pollinators like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, and innovative violinists like Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu, will love this music.

Guitarist Sharon Isbin Pushes the Indian Music Envelope

Perennially adventurous guitarist Sharon Isbin has a couple of ambitious new albums out: the first, a Chris Brubeck concerto for guitar and orchestra, the second a landmark collaboration with Indian sarod virtuosos Amjad Ali Khan and his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Titled Strings for Peace, it’s a terse collection of four classic ragas, streaming at Spotify. Kyle Paul’s arrangements are pristine and uncluttered, giving all the musicians plenty of room for individual contributions. Isbin’s judicious use of chords adds welcome, lowlit color and resonance.

The first is By the Moon, an interpretation of Raga Behag. Isbin’s delicate but determined phrasing and Amaan Ali Bangash’s warmly nocturnal melismas open this popular evening theme with lustre and subtlety. Amit Kavthekar’s tabla signals a shift to a joyously dancing series of rises and falls. The blend of sarod and guitar sometimes evokes a sitar, but with subtle timbral differences; Isbin turns out to be more likely to back Bangash than he does behind her stately, steady, strolling riffs.

Ayaan Ali Bangash takes over sarod duties on the album’s second track, Love Avalanche, a moody, suspensefully waltzing, barely four-minute take of Raga Mishra Bhairav. Romancing Earth, a.k.a. Raga Pilu features the family patriarch, first tantalizingly allusive, then engaging Isbin in a saturnine exchange. The suspense as he shadows her is masterfully orchestrated; there’s a rather coy ascent and then the two declare victory over relentless unease.

Ayaan Ali Bangash returns for the final track, Sacred Evening, an arrangement of Raga Yaman, There’s a starry sense of longing in the alap; the brittleness of the guitar (Isbin varies the amount of reverb from section to section) contrasts with the warp and speed of the sarod. It’s a bit much when they hang on a riff that’s been appropriated by a million fusion bands, but they redeem themselves with an unexpected and innovative coda. If you love Indian music and can handle some thoughtful harmonic innovation, you’ll should hear this album

Epically Intense, Cinematic Indian Grooves and a New Album From Red Baraat’s Sunny Jain

To what degree is drummer/composer Sunny Jain‘s new album Wild Wild East – streaming at Bandcamp – simply the latest release by his wild Indian brass band Red Baraat? For one thing, it’s more stylistically vast, mashing up that band’s blazing, brass-fueled bhangra with classic Bollywood grooves, surf and spy themes, Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack ambience, and majestic 70s art-rock. Jain’s next gig is leading Red Baraat from behind his massive doublebarreled dhol drum at Symphony Space on March 10 at 8 PM; you can get in for $30.

The new album’s title reflects both the chaotic unease that an immigrant experiences, and also turns the traditional American cowboy archetype inside out. As Jain sees it, immigrants are the new cowboys, blazing a trail for the West, relegating the old model to what it is: a swaggering, pistol-packing menace to society, and especially to newcomers here.

Jain kicks off the record with Immigrant Warrior, a brisk, flurrying epic built around a lavishly arranged action theme that begins as a Bollywood-flavored dancefloor stomp and rises to titanic heights with Grey McMurray’s layers of searing guitars,  Pawan Benjamin’s catchy, matter-of-fact alto sax carrying the tune. The title track is more swirlingly suspenseful, with chanteuse Ganavya’s echoey, wordless midrange vocals over tightly clustering syncopation.

Benjamin’s trills and bends build a bracing microtonal edge over the enveloping raga ambience in Osian, as Jain subtly pulls it onto the rails out of a tumbling introduction, guitar growing more deliciously jagged as the band gather steam. In a lot of ways the ominous hip-hop tune Red, Brown, Black is the key to the album; “I love my country but they think I’m ISIS,” guest rapper Haseeb muses early on in a grim struggler’s narrative.

Aye Meri Del Kahin Aur Chal has a swaying, machinegunning bhangra beat, catchy multitracked surf guitar and a big raga crescendo. Bhaagi is a stormy ghazal set to a trip-hop beat, followed by Blackwell, a languid, carefree tableau with balmy bansuri flute. Hai Apni Dil to Aawara is the album’s biggest musical mindfuck, a carnatic country waltz.

The bansuri returns, but much more darkly, in the lingering twists and turns of Turnse Lagi Lagan, which in its quietly brooding way might be the album’s strongest track. From there the band segue up slowly into a gathering storm in Maitri Bhavanu, Ganavya’s melismatic vocals imploring overhead. The clouds finally burst in Brooklyn Dhamal, closing the album with a barreling drive through a blend of Peter Gunne theme and Sufi music. Whether you call this dance music, film music, Indian music or its own unique creation, it’s one of the best albums of the year as well as a snapshot of where American music will be headed in the decades to come…assuming we survive four more years of the Trumpies. It’s starting to look really ugly at this point.

A Brooding, Indian-Tinged Silent Film Score From Guitarist Rez Abbasi

Guitarist Rez Abbasi‘s score to Frank Osten’s 1929 silent film A Throw of Dice echoes the movie’s Indian milieu, shifting moods on a dime along with the narrative. The soundtrack is streaming at Bandcamp. Abbasi’s next gig is Feb 26 at 8:30 PM at the Bar Next Door, leading a trio with Rashaan Carter on bass and Luca Santiniella on drums; cover is $12.

The movie opens with Mystery Rising. which is more opaque than outright mysterious, a jazz waltz with distant carnatic tinges from Pawan Benjamin’s bansuri flute and percussionist Rohan Krishnamurthy’s flickering accents, Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and Jennifer Vincent’s cello adding somber contrast. There’s even more of a sense of foreboding in Hopeful Impressions, a strolling trio piece for guitar, cello and Jake Goldblas’ drums.

Abbasi hits his sitar pedal for the bubbly Love Prevails against Goldblas’ wry faux-tabla rustles. Likewise, the guitar-sitar voicings and swoopy backward-masked riffs of Facing Truth seem to be played with one eyebrow raised. Abbasi goes back to acoustic alongside Benjamin’s spare soprano sax for a miniature, Amulet & Dagger, then picks up his Strat again for the unexpectedly catchy, uneasily art-rock tinged diptych Blissful Moments. Anchored by Vincent’s hypnotic bass pulse, Seven Days Until News keeps the brooding ambience going.

With its moodily descending and then circling chromatics, Duplicity is one of the most haunting interludes here (full disclosure: nobody at this blog has seen the film). Jugglers, a lively little bit of carnatic jazz, is more straightforward than the title implies. As for Snakebite, it’s a brief, tectonically shifting tone poem.

The way Abbasi orchestrates the cello/sax harmonies to mimic a harmonium in Moving Forward is especially artful. Wedding Preparation turn out to be less harried and stressful than simply straightforward: even as the rhythms diverge, it’s the album’s most recognizably postbop jazz moment. A relaxed pastoral feel recedes for more anxious tonalities in Morning of the Wedding, lingering throughout the quiet foreboding of Gambling Debt.

Dissociative individual voices flutter throughout Boy Changes Fate, giving way to the tensely anthemic, pastoral stroll of Falsehood. Vincent picks up her cello, Benjamin his bansuri for a bit in Changing Worlds, obviously a key moment with its understated syncopation and troubled sax crescendo.

Abbasi grafts a Terry Riley-esque loop atop the crescendoing stalker theme Chase For Liberation and brings the score full circle with True Home. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s small-ensemble adventures in jazz, or guitarist Jonathan Goldberger‘s more cinematic work ought to check this out.