New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

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The Darkest, Most Magical Hours of Last Weekend’s 24-Hour Raga Marathon

Arguably the most stunning moment at last weekend’s 24-hour raga marathon staged by the Brooklyn Raga Massive happened at about 6:30 in the morning. Sarod player Camila Celin was about halfway into a relatively rare late-night raga, choosing her spots with grace and restraint. Before her set, she’d told the audience – most of them sprawled out on the floor – that this wasn’t the first time she’d played a show after staying up all night. She marveled at the kind of life-changing “wedge of light” a performer can access when running on fumes and no sleep. Meanwhile, tabla player Hiren Chate provided kinetic, intricate contrast while Celin hung back, eyes closed, clearly in the place she’d wanted to find.

Then Chate responded to a couple of gently bending sarod riffs with a sudden, steady stream of emphatic eighth notes. Beyond simple contrast, tabla players simply don’t do that. Celin smiled but didn’t respond immediately – the crowd had to wait until she picked up the pace from a lingering poignancy to a tersely triumphant crescendo out.

That wasn’t the only deliciously unexpected moment during prime time. Because the Indian raga repertoire is associated with specific times of day, the marathon offered a rare opportunity to see material that’s seldom performed, especially here in the U.S. So the wee hours were especially enticing, even with the question of whether there would be trains to get the audience there (as it turned out, there basically weren’t). For those who might wonder what after-hours bar would stay open after daybreak to get the rest of this show in, all this happened at the downstairs auditorium at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea.

Through the rest of the night and into the morning, there was imaginative interplay, unorthodox instrumentation and innovative arrangements of centuries-old melodies, which makes sense considering that the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s agenda is to take Indian classical music to new places. The heavy hitters they’d brought in from India played during the day: this was the kids’ table, the place all the big paradigm shifts are going to come from.

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio played the 4 AM set, which was all about camaraderie and calm, purposeful exploration. Guitarist Rez Abbasi – the marathon’s most marathon performer- took his time with lingering, frequently uneasy lines while Mittal wove flurries of postbop jazz, then the two would switch roles, giving each other plenty of space. Meanwhile, drummer Alex Ritz used the whole of the kit, slicing and dicing tabla riffs on his snare or his hardware. It was a prime example of how fertile terrain Indian music can be for great creative musicians.

Trumpeter Aaron Shragge was the first to get a wee-hours raga, often characterized by the biting, chromatic confluence of Indian music and the Middle East. He began his set with an uneasily modulated shakuhachi solo before Abbasi joined him, again alternating between similarly tremoloing, terse, moody phrases and more complex clusters. Switching to trumpet, Shragge hinted at a fanfare – or a call to arms – but never quite went there, leveraging the suspense with Amir ElSaffar-class intensity.

As the first rays of sun beamed gently on the horizon, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and tabla player Ehren Hanson evoked friendly birdsong and then a warmly cantabile, legato greeting to the day. As the Sunday sun rose in the sky, santoor player Deepal Chodhari spun perfectly executed, endlessly circling phrases while tabla player Shiva Ghoshal chose his spots: it was the reverse image of what Celin and Chate had done a couple of hours earlier. There seemed to be more original composition in her hour onstage: cell-like Philip Glassine phrases and a long, Japanese-tinged interlude. There was still an hour to go after that, but these days, a New Yorker has to seize every moment available while the trains are actually running.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive, whose rotating cast of members includes most of these artists, play every Wednesday at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.(at Washington Ave) in Ft Greene; cover is $15, and the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St. This week’s show, on Nov 1 at 8:30 PM features singer Vignesh Ravichandran with violinist Bala Skandan and mridungam player Sriram Raman, followed by the Massive’s legendary jam session. You never know who’s going to turn up.

Aakash Mittal Pulls Together an Amazing Band to Reinvent Some Unexpected Tunes

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal surveyed the scene from offstage, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with his eyes closed, lost in the music at Rockwood Music Hall last week. This time he had his serious impresario hat on, and the band he’d pulled together was killing it. To his far right, pianist Arcoiris Sandoval drove hard to a crescendo, valkyrie fingers voicing wide-angle, upwardly cascading chords. Bassist Ray Parker shifted in a second from stark. bowed washes into a late 70s Ron Carter-style racewalk. Drummer Alex Ritz made a different, similarly devious shift, from triplets to a jazz waltz. Trumpeter Brad Goode was also chilling at that moment, having tickled the audience with his leperchaun glissandos and fleeting swoops and chirps, when he wasn’t inviting a harbor mist in with his looming, lustrously sustained muted phrases.

That was just the first song. They didn’t even hit the head – it was Straight, No Chaser – until the final chorus. With a lyricism that was as subtle as it was striking, Mittal had opened it with a vivid bhangra riff, but the attack was the opposite of the kind of wind-tunnel pyrotechnics that another Indian-inspired altoist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, would probably have made out of it.

Throughout the group’s tantalizing hour onstage Mittal relished the role of protean instigator, reaffirming his position as one of the most mutable, versatile saxophonists in New York. That opening riff and variations were gentle but bright and brassy, in a Jackie McLean vein. After that, Mittal went into balmy mode, but with a brisk, Birdlike, bluesy focus. Then he brought some gruffness into the picture as the band built steam.

It’s very rare to see Mittal playing standards – he usually plays his own intricate, dynamic material which frequently references or interpolates classical Indian themes.. Yet he also calls for more individual input than most bandleaders do: assembling the exact core of personalities for a specific blend of jousting and unexpected thrills seems to mean as much to Mittal as the tunes themselves.

And everybody delivered. Goode – a Chicago-based player who gets here too infrequently – switched effortlessly between daunting extended technique and solitary deep-night Miles, whether playing with a mute or not. Parker and Ritz delivered a percolating, floating swing early on, then Parker played chiller, Ritz following with one nifty peek-a-boo turn through his hardware and cymbal bells after another until everybody was smiling. Then he found a clave and hung with it, through the night’s best number, All the Things You Are – even when he went back to the hardware department. Meanwhile, Sandoval flashed lowdown roadhouse blues, austere Chopin and bright, condor-winged chords that brought to mind Luis Perdomo.

After all that,  the group made a rapturously closing tone poem of sorts out of You Don’t Know What Love Is. Mittal’s next gig is on October 22 at 4 AM (yes, in the morning) at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s allnight festival. Tix for the 4 to 7 AM time slot (probably the hottest part of the night) are $30.