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Tag: Arun Ramamurthy review

Thrills, Gravitas and Cinematic Color with the Nakshatra Quartet at the Drive East Festival

Considering how much great live music there is in New York, a festival has to be pretty special to be worth going to four out of five nights during the work week. But this year’s edition of the Drive East Festival has been that good. And it’s been as diverse as always. So far this week’s concerts have featured laments, ragas both epic and fleeting, a harrowing Metoo-themed dance piece set to a live score, and blissfully peaceful improvisation. Last night’s performance by violinists Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu’s Nakshatra Quartet was the most viscerally thrilling and solo-centric of all of them up to this point. But it was also about dynamics, and pushing the envelope, and keeping a clear eye on the grim realities of this year’s political environment…and what we can do about it.

Ramamurthy and Basu would probably laugh if someone called them New York’s #1 power couple in Indian music, but it’s impossible to think of another family with equally formidable chops. When they perform as a duo, it’s hard to tell who’s playing what unless you’re watching. In this ensemble – which also included Jake Charkey on cello and Dan Kurfirst on percussion – their individuality was much more defined, although the two have a near-telepathic rapport.

Basu came to carnatic music from a classical background, and plays with her violin on her shoulder. In this context, she revealed a lighter, more delicate tone than her husband, who’s been immersed in carnatic music since his student days but also excels at jazz improvisation. Where her approach had more a silken legato, Ramamurthy dug in hard with his glissandos and jaunty ornamentation, seated crosslegged, the head of his axe balanced on the stage. Both husband and wife delivered spine-tingling solos.

They opened with the colorful, cinematic pastorale, Tempest. The intensity went through the roof when Charkey joined the tense intertwine between the violins, adding an ominous drone on the G string. From there they negotiated a maze of increasingly agitated echo effects and circular phrases, up to a stormy peak and then an uneasy clearing, coming full circle at the end,

The rest of the set combined edgy jazz flair with Indian majesty and gravitas. Basu introduced the mini-epic Migration as a parable of the increasing terror and obstacles facing refugees and immigrants since the fateful 2016 Presidential election – an insight underscored by her participation in the Borderless Lullabies benefit project for refugee children incarcerated at the US-Mexico border. The interplay was dancingly optimistic to begin with but then climbed to stormy, increasingly syncopated territory.

Nocturne, a dramatic and incisively haunting tableau, had Middle Eastern tinges, ominously shivery chromatic cascades from Basu and slashing microtones from Ramamurthy, in solos that were tantalizingly short. He introduced the night’s one cover, Kalamabike, by 18th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar, as being very dear to his heart, which was understandable: it’s a gorgeous coda to one of the composer’s many suites, its stark, plaintively unwinding variations anchored by an elegant, broodingly serpentine bassline from Charkey.

You might not expect a drummer to be using a djembe, cajon, daf frame drum and cymbal at a show like this, but this isn’t your typical Indian band, and Kurfirst provided understated color and texture with each of those implements. Charkey also got a couple of moments to pitch in with darkly slithery, microtonally bristling solos. The trio’s closing number echoed the loping, quasi trip-hop groove that many of the other songs followed in their most straightforward moments, in addition to vivid raga riffs from all three of the stringed instruments. Was all this jazz? You could call it that. Indian music? Most definitely. But ultimately, all this defied categorization: it’s unique to the Nakshatra Quartet. You’ll see this concert on the Best Shows of 2019 page here at the end of the year.

This year’s Drive East Festival continues tonight, August 10 at 7:20 PM with a rare US performance by another spectacular, dynamic violinist, Sruti Sarathy at the Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W 53rd St.; cover is $20.

This Year’s Noguchi Museum Concert Series Winds Up With Enchantingly Hypnotic, Vivid Indian Music

Sunday afternoon at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu coiled and spun and wound their way through an intricate, cinematic, constantly shifting series of themes anchored in thousands of years of Indian classical music. Both violinists have formidable chops to match the eclectic range of their compositions. Without watching closely, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what, their harmonies were so seamless. Supposedly, couples grow to resemble each other, and while there’s no mistaking her for him, their styles are similar. Ramamurthy is probably the more likely of the two to pull an epic crescendo out of thin air, which he did with a slithery cadenza about midway through the show. Basu often infuses her work with a puckish sense of humor, and there were a couple of points at this show where she playfully goosed her husband through a couple of almost ridiculously amusing exchanges of pizzicato,

The two began the show with a raga, immediately introducing the suspense as the sparse phrases of their opening alap slowly came together. Often Basu would ground the music with austerely resonant, viola-like washes, but then the two violins would exchange roles and she’d go soaring while Ramamurthy held down the lows, often with a wary, melismatic edge. Meanwhile, percussionist Rich Stein, who’d first joined the fun with a precise, tabla-like rhythm, went to his cymbals for a lush mist and by the show’s midpoint was getting all sorts of wry snowflake effects out of his shakers and rattles.

All the compositions were based on classic raga themes. A melodic minor number brought a storm theme to life, but this was no ordinary monsoon! The group worked endless permutations on the theme of a boat rocking on the waves, then suddenly there was a sparse after-the-rain idyll. Just when it seemed they’d reached a calm, the storm came back…and it wasn’t going to leave until everybody was drenched! Of all the trick endings, false starts and stops, this was the least expected one of the afternoon, long with an even more invigorating, glissandoing detour toward free jazz before Ramamurthy steered it back toward shore.

The trio closed with Migration, a new composition that seemed to portray a very complicated flock of birds making their way to a new destination, scattered with tense, fluttery clusters, calmly sailing interludes and finally a long, hypnotic percussion interlude. Ramamurthy and Basu’s next show is on Oct 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga extravaganza; $30 tix are available for three-hour time slots for those who aren’t planning on making the museum their hotel for the entire night.

This was the final concert in the annual senes here in the museum’s back garden booked by the Bang on a Can organization. For a Sunday when the trains were completely FUBAR, there was a surprisingly good crowd, the audience squeezing themselves onto a few wooden benches, others seated on the garden’s rough gravel on bamboo mats supplied by the museum staff.

The museum itself, just down the block from the Socrates Sculpture Garden, is also worth a trip whether or not there’s music. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s a comfortable walk from the Broadway N train station. Isamu Noguchi was an interesting character: his stone and metal sculptures blend cubism, Eastern Island iconography and desert mesas. He seems to have been caught between several worlds. After Pearl Harbor, he interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp for his fellow Japanese-Americans, hoping to provide some art therapy, but quickly grew disillusioned…and then had a hard time getting released. The current exhibit there documents those struggles during an especially ugly moment in American history.

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.