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An Auspicious Live Improvisational Series in Prospect Park

As musicians are busting out all over the place to play, there’s an intriguing new series of early Tuesday night shows in Prospect Park, close to the 11th St. entrance at the top of the slope. The theme is conversational improvisation. This isn’t free jazz for people who like awkward bursts of spastic noise: this is for people who want to see tunes being pulled out of thin air. On April 14 at 5:30, the series features the cross-generational trio Becoming and Return with veteran Daniel Carter, most likely on sax, trumpet and maybe clarinet too, with Roshni Samlal on tabla and Dan Kurfirst on drums. It’s a good lineup because Samlal is just as much about subtlety as she is about fire, and Kurfirst is a colorist with a mystical, Middle Eastern side. There may be a point where the whole band turns into a quietly shamanic drum circle.

Carter has appeared on a million albums over the years. The most recent one, it seems (although you never know) is Telepathic Mysteries Vol. 1, by the aptly named Telepathic Band, streaming at Bandcamp. This group is similarly cross-generational, with Patrick Holmes on clarinet, Matthew Putman on piano and electric piano, Hilliard Greene on bass and Federico Ughi on drums. The level of interplay and calm imagination here is stunning, the group slowly conjuring a vast panorama of tunes.

They open the record with Nun Zero, a steady, swinging ballad that begins springing leaks and then the center gives way. The effect is irresistibly funny, too good to give away. The rhythm drops out for brooding piano and a pensive twin-clarinet interlude before an impatient pulse returns. There are swirls and ripples and a quasi-qawwali groove with spacy keys as Carter gently holds fort. Holmes’ clarinet returns to shadow Carter’s sax, then heads skyward, falling away for waves from the drums washing the shore. The creepy, tinkly, echoey electric piano makes a comeback, Carter a morose microtonal ghost in the background, until a long, bell-like, minimalistically insistent interlude with a relentless chill, Carter switching to trumpet. They take it out with calm echoes and flutters. Wow!

Track two, SignGhost Theatre, opens with what sounds like a lustrous allusion to Mood Indigo. Holmes leading the way, Carter’s trumpet shadowing him, the harmonies follow a lingering, rubato descent: that slow clarinet glissando over Ughi’s cautious tumbles will take your breath away.

Greene’s sly bends contrast with Putnam’s glittery piano and soaring clarinet in the barely two-minute While You Snap. The band go back to epic mode for S-Cape Cinemagic, opening with desolate twin clarinets over Ughi’s misterioso toms and Greene’s spare, solemn bass. Putnam’s steady, echoey Rhodes enhances the mystical, kaleidoscopic ambience, Holmes fueling a big rise to a steady, enveloping sway. The way Greene brings back the rhythm is just plain hilarious.

They close on a more hypnotic note with Lore Levels, clarinets wafting with the keys, bass and toms looming quietly in the distance. Putnam’s piano springs into action as Holmes leaps around, Carter’s trumpet signaling a clustering forward drive that goes out in a shimmering sunset. Who needs compositions when you have a crew who can improvise like this?

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.