It wouldn’t be absurd to call Jayanthi Kumaresh the Jimi Hendrix of the veena, the many-thousand-year-old Indian instrument that looks like a sitar with fewer strings. Veena music is rare these days: Indian stringed instrument players tend to go straight to the sitar, or even the surbahar with its extended low register. But the veena is all Kumaresh needs. Her concert last night at Roulette was awe-inspiring, in terms of fearsome technique as well as cutting-edge ideas and lyrical poignancy.
For the first hour of the performance, she played solo, pulling a symphony of ragas out of thin air. From the first uneasy chromatics of her opening phrases, it seemed that she’d chosen a rather dark path…but that would have to wait. Dynamically and methodically, she built a series of crescendos and lulls, never settling on one particular raga for long, yet frequently returning with variations on a theme. Wide-angle deep-sky rapture gave way to a jaunty bounce, jaggedly stairstepping interludes and finally wildfire intensity that was all the more spine-tingling considering the atmospherre she’d built around it.
It’s astonishing how much sheer volume Kumaresh gets from an acoustic instrument (for the record, the veena was miked through the PA). Not only does she pluck the strings, she swoops up and down the frets, feverishly building quietly looming ambience. Her vibrato was just as jaw-dropping to witness: much as she worked minute, quivering shifts in pitch, she also attacked the strings with a furiously tremoloing attack that in several instances evoked a theremin.
Likewise, her melodic approach is state-of-the-art. There was a point where she fired off a trio of riffs that were as sophisticated, and almost defiantly triumphant, as anything Charlie Parker ever played. She also slammed out a series of big, insistent chords during a handful of crescendos: who says there’s no harmony in Indian music? With as much elegance as force, she finally brought her one-woman symphony full circle, to the enigmatic, chromatically-charged mode she began with. The audience was spellbound.
The second half of the program was anticlimactic. Percussion duo Jayachandra Rao and Pramath Kiran – on mridangam and tabla, respectively – went for drollery, which on one hand made sense since there was no way anyone was going to top what had just taken place, in terms of intensity. But there are a limited number of jokes you can tell with a jawharp, Kiran’s other specialty. Kumaresh finally returned to the stage for a more-or-less full-throttle romp packed with clever exchanges between all three musicians, up to a series of joyously tricky false endings.
Robert Browning Associates, who booked this show with Roulette, are winding up this year’s edition of what they call their World in Trance festival tonight, April 13 at 8 there with hypnotically whirling Pakistani sufi chants from Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers; $30 advance tix are still available as of this afternoon.