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Tag: indian music

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

How Free Jazz Is Saving New York

We are at a very interesting moment in New York music history. Some of the artists who have existed at the furthest fringes of our culture are stepping up to save it.

Is that a great irony, or has that always been the case? Aren’t the greatest innovators in any field, from politics to science, always viewed as heretics?

Sure, there’s been plenty of live music across the five boroughs since the lockdown was first instituted. But most of those shows were intimate house concerts, by invite only, promoted by word of mouth rather than on social media in order to stay under the radar. It’s been heartwarming to witness how many of the prime movers in New York’s improvised music community have recently managed to find a way around the lockdowners’ paranoid regulations to bring back live music for the general public in this city.

Maybe that should come as no surprise. Before the lockdown, very few profit-driven venues in this city would have been willing to book a single creative jazz act, let alone a whole night of free jazz, so creative musicians have always had to improvise (sorry – couldn’t resist that one).

The latest series of shows staged by the innovators behind CenterPoint Arts’ series are continuing over the next few days at the cube at Astor Place, at 7 PM. Tonight, July 5, drummer Dan Kurfirst jams with with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba.

Carter has played on a gazillion records over the years: one of the most entrancing and unusual recent ones is the Harbinger album with Jarvis Earnshaw on sitar, vocals and loops and Zach Swanson on bass. It’s a thoughtful, conversational forty-eight minute suite, more or less, recorded and mixed at Martin Bisi’s legendary, sonically rich Gowanus basement space, BC Studio and streaming at Bandcamp.

Foghorn trumpet from Carter anchored by Swanson’s long, low, bowed tones and Earnshaw’s terse, incisive lines echo kaleidescopically through the mix as the three get underway. Earnshaw introduces a lyrical, descending raga riff shadowed by Swanson, Carter switching to balmy tenor sax. Then he moves to flute, Swanson picks up his bow and the theme continues.

They loosen, expand and grow more desolate, Earnshaw’s steely phrases holding the center. Close harmonies between the spacious sitar and echoing trumpet add a bracing edge; Earnshaw also plays chords and unearthly plucked harmonics. Carter looms over a sitar drone, then a broodingly triangulated conversation emerges. A break in the clouds doesn’t last; Earnshaw vocalizes while shifting toward a more rock-oriented, chordal attack.

A lull for solo sitar introduces a warmly hazy nocturnal raga of sorts: it’s here where Carter – back on sax – cuts loose to the extent that he can here. They bring it full circle at the end. There’s as much listening going on as actual playing, resulting in a project that’s as envelopingly enjoyable to hear as it obviously must have been to record.

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.

Sarah Pagé Plays Hypnotically Catchy, Shimmery Psychedelia on the Concert Harp

From the droning oscillations of the title track of Sarah Pagé’s new album Dose Curves, growing increasingly metallic, shedding overtones like a circular saw cutting sheet metal, it’s hard to imagine how she could create such a vortex with a harp. Electronics are obviously a big part of the picture; still, this collection of instrumental nocturnes – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most imaginative psychedelic records in recent memory.

From the opening drone, Pagé segues into the hypnotically loopy, austerely folky Stasis:, reverb way up in the mix, her spacious plucking sometimes resembling a steel guitar, sometimes an Indian veena.

Simple, organ-like pitch-shifting harmonies permeate Lithium Taper, all the way through to a teenage wasteland of the harp (old people who listen to “classic rock” radio will get that joke). Rippling without a pause into Ephemeris, she loops a galloping phrase and builds constellations of bright, tersely attractive riffage around it. Ever wonder if a harp could echo like a Fender Rhodes piano? Here’s your answer.

The album closes with Pagé’s most epic cut, Pleaides, a softly pulsing deep-space raga, akin to a sitar drifting gently further and further from earth to the point where the vastness becomes terrifying. This isn’t just great atmospheric music: it’s great Indian music. What a strange and beautiful record.

Guitarist Joel Harrison Takes a Plunge into Gorgeous Indian Sounds

Guitarist Joel Harrison’s innovative, frequently vast compositions span many different styles of jazz and new classical music. He gravitates toward slower tempos and epic grandeur, both of which are in full effect on his latest album, Still Point: Turning World, featuring the Talujon Percussion Quartet. What’s most exciting about this colorful, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes exhilarating record – streaming at Bandcamp – is that it’s Indian music played with jazz instrumentation. It’s in the same vein as the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s reinventions of centuries-old Indian raga themes. Harrison and Talujon are at Roulette on Nov 6 at 8 PM; advance tix, available at the venue, are $18/

Harrison takes the title from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, a reference to a mystical place of transcendence – or simply life. On the first number, Raindrops in Uncommon Time, the Indian sounds don’t kick in until about a third of the way through. The first part is a circling blend of acoustic guitar and vibraphone akin to a Malian kora melody. Then sarod player Anupam Shobhakar takes centerstage over the loopy vibes, tabla, and Harrison’s alternately resonant and jagged electric guitar. Ben Wendel’s sax joins the party: everybody plays the melody, and after a wry bit of rhythmic takadimi vocalizing, the group dance through a cheery crescendo that finally comes full circle. All this in about nine minutes.

One Is Really Many has Shobhakar running variations on what sounds like a classic Paul McCartney riff, then after a crescendo with the whole group going full steam, the song’s inner raga comes front and center, sarod scampering over spare, resonant accents from the rest of the crew. Wendel takes it out with a determined coda.

Harrison’s terse, distorted leads come to the forefront in Permanent Impermanence, which drummer Dan Weiss takes doublespeed out of a subtly syncopated stroll: once again, the raga comes into clear focus at that point, sax and eventually the vibes soloing over Harrison’s skronky chords. The considerably calmer Wind Over Eagle Lake 1 has playful ripples against stately gongs and bells

Tightly unwinding, cleverly looped, Terry Riley-ish vibraphone riffs introduce Ballad of Blue Mountain, lingering clouds of guitar and sax passing through the sonic picture, the sarod building slowly to a forceful peak.

Time Present Time Past has catchy hints of mid-70s Stevie Wonder within a catchy raga theme, the band slowing to halfspeed and then joyously back, ending on unexpectedly hazy note. The album’s centerpiece, Creator Destroyer has Shobhakar’s most adrenalizing volleys of notes within its  crescendoing intensity: it’s the most percussion-centric number here. The final cut is Blue Mountain (A Slight Return), a fond pastoral ballad and variations over a bustling, tabla-driven clave groove, the sarod fueling a series of rapidfire crescendos. The band trade animated riffs on the way out, as firmly in the jazz tradition as the raga pantheon.

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.

Misty, Meditative Clarity with Saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan at the Drive East Festival

The early show this past evening at the ongoing Drive East Festival of Indian music was both lively and serene. In that sense, alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan‘s duo set with Rohan Krishnamurthy on mridangam represented a considerable shift from the harrowing poignancy of sitarist Hidayat Khan’s opening night raga, not to mention the ferocity and relevance of the following night’s Metoo-themed dance performance.

Early on, Radhakrishnan mused about how sound enables enlightenment: if only it was that easy to filter out the rest of the world and focus on it! Calmly and thoughtfully, the two musicians held up their end, establishing a peaceful and purposeful dialogue with a long mridangam solo midway through, punctuated by a ridiculously funny countdown sequence.

Radhakrishnan’s approach is more Coltrane (someone he quoted from, lyrically, in a brief interlude about three-quarters of the way through) than, say, Hafez Modirzadeh. Throughout the night, the tone of the sax was misty and enveloping, a warmly bounding presence anchored by a steady pulse and steely command of minute inflections, eschewing microtones for an often hypnotic fluidity. Optimism and a calm sense of triumph prevailed, beginning with a bubbly carnatic theme that Radhakrishnan finally brought full circle. In between, the duo shifted from a fleeting atmospheric passage or two to subtly morphing, deftly syncopated variations on classic raga riffs.

The effect on the audience – which kept growing after the show began and almost completely filled the auditorium – was womblike. Walking out to to the street afterward, still wrapped in a calm, meditative state, how pleasant it was to see that there’d been a storm and that the temperature had plummeted at least twenty degrees. Lord Indra was definitely smiling on the festival tonight!

The Drive East Festival continues tomorrow night, August 9, beginning at 6 PM with two of the most compelling violinists in Indian music, Trina Basu and Arun Ramamurthy and their carnatic-inspired Nakshatra Quartet. Cover is $25.