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The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 2: Hits and Misses

This year’s return of the 24-hour-plus Ragas Live festival of Indian music and related sounds was so epic that it requires two parts to reasonably digest. The frequently rapturous first half was reviewed here yesterday. The second part was also often transcendent, with some issues.

Let’s tackle those and then get to the good stuff. You’re never going to see fusion jazz on this page: with rare exceptions, good jazz is basically acoustic music. So if you enjoyed the tropical midnight act and the interminable Moroccan fusion interlude yesterday afternoon, glad you had a good time.

It would have been fun to catch sitarist Abhik Mukherjee‘s set to begin the second half of the marathon. Who knew that a trip for coffee a little earlier in the morning would also have turned into a marathon, a much less enjoyable one.

Back at Pioneer Works, bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi took an absolutely harrowing detour, running variations on a haunting, wary chromatic theme with Ehren Hanson on tabla for what seemed the better part of an hour. Beyond Gandhi’s breathtakingly liquid, perfectly modulated sine-wave attack, the somber mood was impossible to turn away from. These are troubled times: nobody has channeled that with such subtle power in recent months as these two. Which made their clever and allusive permutations on a bouncy nursery-rhyme-like riff afterward such a stark contrast. And yet, the darkness lingered, if at a distance.

Trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, whose most recent specialty has become oceanic Middle Eastern big band jazz, followed with about an hour of brooding electroacoustic sounds. Starting off on a labyrinthine rack of analog synthesizers, he rose from enveloping ambience to an achingly gorgeous, regal solo trumpet fanfare in a moody Iraqi maqam. Next, he looped an austere, baroquely churchy organ processional, then employed it as a backdrop for a constellation of santoor riffs which echoed Gandhi’s pervasive angst. He wound up the set on vocals with a similarly cautionary clarion call, more or less.

Another santoorist, Vinay Desai kept the angst at redline with a saturnine tribute to the late, great Shivkumar Sharma, who left us this past spring. We don’t know for certain if the lethal Covid injection took him out. With Vivek Pandya on tabla, the two musicians developed an absolutely gorgeous, elegaic, allusively chromatic theme and variations. Remaining mostly in the midrange, Desai rose for the great beyond with a somber glimmer before bringing it down to a dirge and the tabla entered. As the hour went on, Desai’s ripples off the walls of the space echoed into a galactic drift. Eventually, the duo took the theme skipping into the stars, a sober but energetic farewell to a pioneer.

ElSaffar returned for a second turn on santoor, joining percussionist Zafer Tawil and violinist Sami Abu Shumays behind impassioned veteran Iraqi crooner Hamid Al Saadi. After the sober, stately initial march, the maqam singer would begin the rest of the set’s expansive numbers with darkly dynamic, rubato intros, one leading to a surprisingly subtle call-and-response with ElSaffar. A little later, the group made their way into a swaying, ebullient major-key tune with a starkly contrasting santoor-and- violin break. They closed with undulating, biting chromatic theme with even more lusciously intertwined santoor and violin and a machinegunning coda.

Violinist Arun Ramamurthy gets credit for the festival’s most pyrotechnic performance, a role he’s become accustomed to. This time out he had his Indian jazz trio with bassist Damon Banks and Sameer Gupta on drums. This was the symphonic Ramamurthy: in the boomy space, with the natural reverb bouncing off the walls, he was a violin army. Banks would typically shadow him, Gupta inventively doing a nimble churning groove with tabla voicings on his kit, as the bandleader made his way through a rising and falling epic in tribute to his ancestors, to moments of icy ambience as well as frequent excursions through the bluesy raga riffs that he likes to mine in this context. Nobody knows how to draw an audience in with foreshadowing and judiciously spectacular slides and stabs better than Ramamurthy.

After that it was dance time. All-female Moroccan trance-dance ensemble group Bnat el Houariyat, featuring New York’s Esraa Warda took over the stage and then stomped and twirled and spoke power to male hegemony.

In her New York debut, singer/dancer and mystic Parvathy Baul brought ancient archetypes to life in a fervent but utterly unselfconsciously spiritual set of Bengali ritual songs. Showing off a soulfully soaring, meticulously melismatic, carnatically-infused voice which took on a grittier edge as her set went on, she sang innumerable mythical metaphors and cheerily translated them for the English-only crowd. Moving from ecstasy to tenderness and then an acerbic insistence, she cut loose and reminded that crowd that the truth is like a lion. All you have to do is set it free. Or words to that effect. Let’s hope there’s a Ragas Live festival in 2023.

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The Ragas Live Festival 2022, Part 1: The Magic Is Back

It was great to see the Ragas Live festival of diverse Indian and Indian-adjacent sounds return after a two-year absence. The Brooklyn massive at Pioneer Works last night wasn’t overwhelming, but by the time the concert was over this past evening, a raucous crowd had packed the house. That so many people would come out to the fringes of Red Hook on a raw, unwelcoming afternoon to see what by any standard would be considered niche speaks volumes about what audiences in this city have been missing since March of 2020. Whether that need will be filled in 2023 is a loaded question.

Since the all-night concert was such a feast, this first part concerns the past evening, with part two here. It’s been ten years since the all-night marathon first began in a radio station studio and quickly spread to a series of venues around town. Previous incarnations have been more jazz-oriented: this was a mix of frequently rapturous traditional sounds juxtaposed with more modern ones. Some of the segues were jarring, and the location was suboptimal: if you thought trying to score a cup of coffee at five in the morning in Manhattan was tough these days, try Red Hook, never mind Carroll Gardens. But the performances made the trip worthwhile.

Veena player Saraswathi Ranganathan, backed by Sriram Raman on mridangam and Shiva Ghoshal on tabla, was a fantastic choice of opener (she got a rave review here awhile back for her show at a venue which has since been weaponized in the ongoing mass murder campaign). She dedicated her bouncy, cheery first raga to the men in the house, alluding to how it’s time for the dudes to speak up, stand up and be counted. After the trio built to an immutable, imperturbable drive, there was a wry high/low exchange: the girls schooling the guys on what time it is, maybe?

She followed with raga Mohanam, which she described as an antidepressant: as she put it, releasing the gunk all the way up as the notes rise to the heart chakra. And her attempt at a singalong with the crowd actually worked! Parsing the theme from shivery, steady melismas to a fleeting, thorny complexity and a distant, starry sense of longing, the trio channeled a bustling, determined cheer into an equally imperturbable stroll: it was impossible not to get swept up in Ranganathan’s momentum. There was a wry sotto-voce duel with the mridangam; her interpolation of a call-and-response into the final charge out was masterfully subtle within the volleys of notes and bracing, hold-onto-your-seat ornamentation.

Kora player Kane Mathis and tabla player Roshni Samlal followed with an often celestial set. Samlal grew up in Queens listening to the Ragas Live broadcasts as a kid, and was psyched to be playing now as an adult (actually, she shows up pretty much every year). Mathis delivered feathery, harpsichord-ish waves with an effortless, weightless precision while Samlal drove the occasional unexpected crescendo up to the rafters.

A liltingly dreamy, syncopated number built around a circular kora riff featured the occasional striking polyrhythm by Samlal, who incorporates grooves from her Trinidadian heritage into the mix. Then they picked up the pace with the Mathis tune Rue du Jardin, set to a scampering. cumbia-esque beat.

A little after one in the morning, sarod player Manik Khan and tabla player Sudhakar Vaidyanathan played a tribute to the former’s father, the iconic Ali Akbar Khan to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Their first tune was a serioso evening raga which began with a searching alap built from the simplest ingredients. Khan dipped to a pensive interlude where he parsed the low strings, then subtly rose to an allusive stroll. This was raw magic.

From there he hung allusively as the pace picked up, landing on a chugging, moody theme. Hints of a heroic ballad punctuated by a few downward slashes and then a somber, low tremolo-picking interlude followed in turn He ended it it cold and sudden.

Next was Raga Kirwani, another evening piece, this one a theme imported from the south of the Hindustani subcontinent. Khan let this biting pavane of sorts resolve a lot more than the first number. Again, he hung in the lows for the most part, saving his upward stabs and a fleeting bluegrass flatpicking motif for dramatic effect. The two finally picked up – those slashes were real foreshadowing, but ultimately this was more about brooding intensity than pyrotechnics, even when Khan went pirouetting through an understatedly undulating groove. It made for a great segue.

Dawn of Midi’s Qasim Naqvi was up next with about an hour of Eno-esque electronic ambience. It didn’t have the slightest thing to do with Indian music, but it was pleasant and cocoony.

Sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and tabla player Pranav Ghatraju went back to the fifteenth century for a couple of timeless pieces, the first beginning with an acerbically resonant, swoopingly ornamented alap. While it underscored the eternal appeal of the endlessly otherworldly microtones in Indian fretless string music, the set was also very riff-driven. The two made their way up to a rather stern, stark stroll, methodically building to a triumphant, heroic coda. They launched into a rather solemn processional with the second number, which they could have continued for twice as long, and nobody would have complained.

It was five in the morning when sax-and-synth loopmusic act Kroba built echoey, dystopically warbling soundscapes that went on for almost two hours. A little after expressive singer Samarth Nagarkar took the stage with Khan and tabla player Shank Lahiri, it became clear that despite the quality of his set, it would be impossible to get through the rest of the marathon without more coffee. More on that and the rest of the show in part two here.

Getting Lost in Cassie Wieland’s Warmly Enveloping Minimalist Sonics

Cassie Wieland‘s music is purposeful to a fault: if there’s any composer working today who doesn’t waste notes, it’s her. Last night at Roulette, she and a shapeshifting cast of ensembles played a series of recent instrumental and vocal pieces that came across as Radiohead at one-tenth speed – or Sigur Ros playing Anna Thorvaldsdottir, maybe. Either way, it was frequently a night to get lost in.

Space is a crucial component of Wieland’s work: she will often leave a whole bar or more in between calm, minimalist motives. The effect is less suspenseful than simply calming and hypnotic, each a persistent quality in her music as well.

Playing brooding organ loops on a mini-synth, she led a string quartet subset of chamber ensemble Desdemona through the night’s central suite, Birthday. Weiland explained to the crowd that this was not a bday celebration since she’s a January baby: this was the rescheduled date for the performance originally planned for last winter. That month was reflected in the hazy, broodingly drifting second segment, where she sang through a vocoder while the strings built a slow crescendo assembled from the sparest of raw materials to either simple, emphatic chords or close harmonies. There were striking textural contrasts in the opening segment, stark harmonics against the sleekness of the organ. Subtle counterpoint developed as the piece wore on, concluding with a warm lullaby atmosphere awash in comforting, accordion-like timbres. That cocooning ambience persisted throughout the matter-of-fact tectonic shifts of the night’s final number, Home.

Pianist Isabelle O’Connell and vibraphonist Adam Holmes teamed up for equally mesmerizing textures in the concluding pieces in the first half of the program: the former with her steady, glacially paced accents, the latter bowing a glistening, humming, harmonium-like backdrop which he artfully ornamented with the occasional percussive flicker. The two brought the music full circle, to Plutonian Radiohead, at the end.

There were a few moments of surprising animation in that work, as well as in the night’s opening performance by the trio Bearthoven. Pianist Karl Larson let Wieland’s judicious, minimalist chords linger while percussionist Matt Evans alternated between atmospherics and the occasional sudden crescendo, bassist Pat Swoboda bringing crackling harmonics up out of a spare, wintry atmosphere.

The next concert at Roulette is on Sept 22 at 8 PM with electronic sound artists Victoria Keddie and Rose Kallal; advance tix are $25. The memorial concert for the late, great trumpeter Tomasz Stanko on the 18th is sold out.

Uneasily Enveloping Sonics in a Midtown Park With Rafiq Bhatia and His Trio

“I want to give you permission to just lie down if you want,” guitarist Rafiq Bhatia said to the crowd who’d gathered on the lawn at Bryant Park for his show yesterday evening with trumpeter Riley Mulherkar and drummer Ian Chang. The latter had just opened with a mildly diverting set of solo loopmusic utilizing a variety of electronic patches.

Bhatia has been a prime mover in electroacoustic music in New York for several years. He, too, had plenty of ghosts in his machines, although it was generally easy to tell what he was actually playing and what was just microcircuitry.

His opening number evoked whalesong and birdsong, spiced with gentle volume-knob washes and harmonic plucks, in a Bill Frisell Jr. mode. Chang, having emerged from the metaverse, iced the sonic sculpture with his cymbals as Mulherkar peeked his way in. Bhatia continued to build a brooding, lingering pastorale as the loops behind him flitted further into white noise.

As the night went on, each player left plenty of room for the other, from acidic clouds of overtones, to echoes of noirish Bob Belden-style post-Miles improvisation when Mulherkar would run variations on his own judiciously circling phrases. Bhatia hit his octave pedal (or octave patch, more likely) for minimalistic bass punches as Chang flitted around gracefully: the chemistry between the two was clear, considering their time together in Son Lux.

Swooshy electronic clouds unleashed a gentle quasi-shower from which Mulherkar goodnaturedly emerged into a gently comedic interlude while Bhatia remained attentive, bent over his mixer. But it wasn’t long before the sci-fi noir ambience returned and the trio built to a cold industrial stomp. As the music rose and then Bhatia brought the show full circle, it was all too easy to imagine that this was just another muggy August evening in Manhattan circa 2019, when dystopia was just a theoretical construct that musicians and writers could have fun with since there was a comforting reality to return to when the show was over.

The next free concert at Bryant Park, on August 26 at 7 PM, could be one of this year’s best. Billed as a “habibi festival,” it features three artists and their groups exploring cutting-edge Middle Eastern sounds: North African dancer Esraa Warda & the Châab Lab, eclectic kanun virtuoso Firas Zreik, and haunting French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boulares’ Ajoyo trio.

Rafiq Bhatia Brings His Surreal Soundscapes to a Summer Series in Midtown

It’s hard to think of a guitarist who personifies the state of the art in ambient jazz more individualistically or interestingly than Rafiq Bhatia. He’s just as much at home reinventing Mary Lou Williams tunes with his longtime collaborator Chris Pattishall as he is creating an immersive electronic swirl. Bhatia’s next gig is outdoors at Bryant Park at 7 PM on August 19.

Bhatia had the good fortune to release his most recent album, Standards Vol. 1 – streaming at Bandcamp – in January of 2020. It’s a characteristically outside-the-box series of interpretations of iconic jazz tunes. He opens it by transforming In A Sentimental Mood into a disquieting series of sheets of sound, running Riley Mulherkar’s trumpet and Stephen Riley’s tenor sax through several patches including an icy choir effect.

Cécile McLorin Salvant sings The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face with alternatingly coy charm and outright menace, enhanced electronically by Bhatia’s minimalist textural washes. The only track that Bhatia plays guitar on here is Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman, which he reinvents as an utterly desolate, surrealistically looped, raga-tinged nightscape, Craig Weinrib a fugitive on the run with his palms on the drum heads. The two horns take it out with a dusky wee-hours conversation.

The album’s final number is The Single Petal of a Rose, Pattishall’s spare, raindrop piano licks subtly processed (and maybe cut and pasted) to flit into and out of the sonic picture. It’s a prime example of how Bhatia builds a space to get lost in.

A Relentlessly Suspenseful, Immersive Soundtrack From Ronit Kirchman

Ronit Kirchman’s soundtrack to seasons two through four of the detective series The Sinner – streaming at Spotify – is tantalizingly allusive. Her chilly digital analogues to sweeping orchestration are assembled in and around a series of suites, a welcome change from the minutely fragmented playlist sequences that plague so many other recent soundtrack albums. Much of this could be considered ambient music.

Rhythms, such as they exist, tend to be on the unforgiving, mechanical side. Moments of reflective melancholy filter into Kirchman’s slowly and methodically spiraling kaleidoscope of sound. The opening diptych, Two Deaths Suite rises to a shivery, wildfire thicket of strings. Horizontal tone poems have never been so interesting. The second part is more techy, a study in contrasts and echo phrases.

Gently twinkling keys morph into a mechanical loop and give way to wafting down-the-drainpipe sonics and then a distantly wistful quasi-orchestral theme. Drifts, oscillations and motorik rhythms recede for unexpectedly droll, bubbly fishtank-scapes. There’s an airy simulation of what could be Asian temple ambience and instances of simple plucked violin accents warped into play-dough shapes. Throughout the score, chances that’s Kirchman overdubbing herself into a one-woman string section.

Just when it seems that the Lonely Traveler Suite is going to coalesce into a sweeping symphonic crescendo, the subway to dystopia approaches from far down the tunnel. Whirlybird is not a helicopter portrait but a subtly shifting, circular string piece in a Caroline Shaw vein. When an actual helicopter seems to enter the picture, it comes as a complete surprise.

Here, Midnight in Greenpoint seems far closer to desolate post-2020 nightmare than its previous bar-crawl bustle. As the album reaches the end, the immersiveness and tension rise considerably: it’s hard to think of a better advertisement for the show.

A Friendly Pitchblende Night Drive With Suss

New York instrumentalists Suss have carved out a unique niche playing big-sky nocturnes more evocative of the wide open spaces of the west than, say, Long Island City. That’s where the band are pictured on the cover of their very accurately titled latest album, Night Suite, streaming at Bandcamp. This time, they’ve switched out the locales of the mind conjured up in their previous work, and switched in an overnight trip on Highway 66 from Gallup, New Mexico to the desert town of Needles, California, just across the Colorado River.

As the convoy drift out of Gallup, casual flickers from reverb guitar, pedal steel and starry guitar pedalboard textures begin to creep through the shadowy calm. Flagstaff, Arizona turns out to be a patchwork of stillness punctuated by the occasional passing big rig, fluorescent-lit all-night diner or distant train whistle, or so it would seem.

Further into Arizona, there’s Ash Fork, the most expansive tableau here with its organlike high-lonesome washes of sound. If Pink Floyd were a Tucson band, they would have sounded like this. Guessing that’s Pat Irwin’s guitar flaring gently over Jonathan Gregg’s pedal steel and Gary Lieb’s gently keening synth.

Hints of southwestern gothic – that’s either Bob Holmes or Irwin on guitar – reverberate on the low end. static misting the mix when the convoy reaches Kingman. The distant ghost of a Lynchian ballad wafts in as the group pull gently into their final destination

Immersively Rippling Magic From Satoko Fujii and Taiko Saito’s Futari

As marimba player Taiko Saito tells it, pianist Satoko Fujii is the Shohei Ohtani of jazz: a fearsome hitter who is just as formidable on the pitching mound. As the duo Futari, the two musicians put out a magically spacious album, Beyond, last year. Because neither has been able to visit the other due to totalitarian restrictions, they decided to pitch files to each other over the web and then bat them back. They had so much fun doing it that they decided to release these pieces as a follow-up album, Underground, streaming at Bandcamp.

Fujii has always had an otherworldly, mystical side, and she’s gone into that more deeply than ever in the past few years, notably on her rapturous Piano Music album from last year. The title track here continues in that vein, with glissandos, puffy nebulous phrases and ominous drifts beneath a keening drone, Is that bowed marimba, or Fujii under the piano lid? It’s hard to tell. Another layer of mystery, when it comes to who’s playing what, is Fujii’s cut-and-paste vocalese (she also mixed the record).

The album’s second track, Break in the Clouds has puckish accents – Fujii’s prepared piano? – sprinkled throughout Saito’s slow, tremoloing washes of bowed vibraphone. Piano and vibes are distinct in Meerenspiegel, Saito creating a rapt pebbles-in-a-lake atmosphere over Fujii’s stern, emphatic chords and stately cadences. That carefree/serious dichotomy persists throughout most of the record.

Some people will hear the intro to Air and expect to hear Keith Richards’ modal bass riff introducing the Stones’ 2000 Light Years From Home. Instead, what sounds like backward masking gives way to spare, playful pings and bits of melody interspersed with more disquieting textures, then a slow, brightly unfolding melody.

In Frost Stirring, Fujii is grumpy Old Man Winter to Saito’s spring sprite – or Messiaen to Saito’s Joe Locke on the Twin Peaks movie soundtrack. The duo follow the most atmospheric track here, Memory or Illusion with Finite or Infinite, eight minutes of pinging, rhythmically shifting Terry Riley-ish loopmusic.

In Ayasake, after an amusing nightly news theme of sorts, Fujii builds an ominous undercurrent beneath Saito’s resolute blitheness. Saito responds to Fujii’s somber bell-like accents and surreal inside-the-piano swipes with a sepulchral sustain throughout the closing number, Street Ramp, the most striking piece on the album. There’s also a redemptively amusing bonus track, One Note Techno Punks

Invitingly Nocturnal Minimalist Sounds From Enona

Atmospheric Brooklyn instrumental duo Enona‘s debut album from last year was the result of a productive collaboration that began with trading files over the web. Auspiciously, they were able to defy the odds and made their second one, Broken – streaming at Bandcamp – in the friendlier confines of a real studio. And as you would hope, there’s more of an immediacy to the music. While it can be downright Lynchian in places, it’s also more warmly optimistic. Kind of like February 2022, huh?

The opening cut, Rekindle sounds like a more organic Julee Cruise backing track, Ron Tucker’s spare, starrily nostalgic piano eventually joined by Arun Antonyraj’s atmospheric washes of guitar and guest Marwan Kanafani’s even more minimalistic Rhodes

Tucker builds a dissociatively psychedelic web of stalactite piano motives over a gentle hailstorm of tremolo-picked guitar in the album’s second track,  Recollections. Track three, Unspoken has a sparse lead piano line over brassy sustain from the guitar that falls away to an unexpected starkness.

Lament, a solo piano piece, is less plaintive than simply a study in dichotomies. The duo revisit a wistful nocturnal ambience in the conclusion, Broke. It’s a good rainy-day late-night listen.

Eclectic Digital Sounds Trace the Development of an Analog World

Multi-instrumentalist Uèle Lamore‘s new instrumental album Loom – streaming at Spotify – traces the evolution of life on earth. The music is more airy and playful than you would probably expect from such an ambitious theme. Lamore blends elements of psychedelia, downtempo, chillwave, ambient and film music in a series of succinct, relatively brief tracks with occasional vocals.

A loon, or the electronic equivalent, calls out in the darkness, then a swaying, echoing, slickly 80s-style trip-hop theme develops to open the record. Lamore takes a flippant little piano phrase, flips it upside down and then runs the riff and variations through a series of patches for the second track, The Dark.

The Creation begins with gamelan-like chimes, then a flute patch moves to the forefront over puffy, rhythmic synth.

The First Tree is a sweeping, vaguely mysterious hip-hop tune.The next track, Breathe is not a Pink Floyd cover but a motorik-flavored theme that reminds of a big hit by Prince.

Currents has a wry vocoder track over the swirl, while Gene Pool is a return to fun things that can be done with a simple piano riff and textural variations.

Lamore follows Pollen, an atmospheric neosoul tune, with Predation, a muted whoomp-whoomp dancefloor jam. By the time we reach Dominance, are we in the dinosaur era yet? This loopy, cinematic segment is much more futuristic. Lamore winds up the album with Warm Blood, her vocals adrift in an echoey sheen.