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Tag: indian music

A Characteristically Soulful Alice Coltrane Rarity Resurfaces

While Alice Coltrane did not live in the shadow of her iconic husband, her work is too often overlooked. During her life, she was revered as a creator of longscale, spiritually-inspired jazz compositions. She was a talented improviser on the concert harp, organ and piano. There’s a reissue of an obscure, limited-edition 1981 Alice Coltrane album, Kirtan: Turiya Sings, just out and streaming at Spotify. If her better-known music resonates with you, this a special treat because it’s a rare opportunity to hear Coltrane on both vocals and Wurlitzer organ.

Coltrane shared her husband’s love of Indian music and spirituality – her son Ravi, named after Ravi Shankar, produced this album. Here, she takes her time with a series of ancient Indian kirtan themes, singing in Sanskrit in a modulated, often stark alto voice over slowly shifting organ chords. The music draws more on the blues and 19th century African-American spirituals than it does the Indian carnatic tradition, often very anthemically. Listen closely and you’ll discover variations calmly unfolding. And the hypnotic sixth track could be a Doors song. Essentially, these are hymns, easy to sing along to as part of a yoga practice, for meditation or as just plain good chillout music.

A Stunning Ravi Shankar Rarity Rescued From Obscurity

There’s enough Ravi Shankar online to listen to for a year without a break. Needless to say, pretty much every time he sat down with his sitar, the J.S. Bach of Indian music was spine-tingling to witness. Today’s album is a rarity. Ravi Shankar Live in Hollywood 1971 – streaming at Bandcamp – was recorded at a house concert and only released posthumously. It’s Shankar at his most succinct. In concert, he could and would often go on for hours, but three of the four ragas here are especially brief for him. Poignancy, humor, relentless suspense, spectacular peaks, it’s all here, in slightly smaller but no less psychedelic packages than usual.

He opens with a relatively rare morning raga, Raga Vibhas, slowly and meticulously building a low midrange melody, the sun gradually looming over the horizon as he brightens the textures. Yet immediately, he introduces a persistent chromatic unease. It’s extraordinary how he senses the need to pick up the pace at almost exactly the midway mark, not knowing how this will end! The late introduction of the tabla gives Shankar the chance to drive toward a big crescendo with his clustering phrases. Wryly twinkling riffs draw a chuckle or two, then Shankar focuses in with an incisive attack.

Raga Parameshwari is the centerpiece, the sitarist at the top of his game through another morning raga that goes on for well over fifty minutes. The long, steady, lingering opening alap, Shankar finally descending to rich, suspensefully warpy low tones, also features spare, allusive tabla. The sitar builds intensity with recurrent variations on an allusively chromatic, tantalizingly unresolved rising phrase, then the music warms, rising and falling, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. A momentary, hypnotic, minimalist lull is breathtaking (for everybody, it seems) and signals a first round of rapidfire volleys, supersonic sizzle intermingled within the persistent metallic gleam.

Shankar dedicates the brightly lilting, relatively brief Raga Dunh to the people of Bangladesh, imperiled at the time by a Pakistani invasion. The single, bracingly rising opening riff, plaintive, resonant tones and classic, stairstepping moment in the alap that opens Raga Sindhi Bhairavi only hint at the torrential power Shankar  will generate. Considering its origins, this raga has more Middle Eastern ambience than most of the others in the cycle. And yet, Shankar is just as rambunctiously funny in places as he is slashingly incisive elsewhere. Of all the ragas here, this is the most straightforward and unrelenting, his volleys of tremolo-picking and wild bends rising throughout a long, stunning coda.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Wild Indian-Flavored Dance Tunes on Sunny Jain’s Eclectic, High-Voltage New Album

Sunny Jain‘s new album Phoenix Rise – streaming at Bandcamp – isn’t just a good dance album. It’s a fun guessing game: trying to figure out who’s playing on what tracks is not easy, considering how many people play on them, but their very distinctive, individual voices sometimes give themselves away. Jain being a multi-percussionist – the dhol player and leader of Red Baraat, but also a first-class jazz drummer – the focus of his music is always the rhythm. As you would imagine from how eclectic the projects he’s played in over the years have been, the music here is just as diverse.

That’s definitely Malik Work out in front of the band on the vampy, opening hip-hop tune saluting the world’s everyday heroes. The calmly impassioned voice on the mic in the undulating, qawwali-inflected Where Is Home sounds like Arooj Aftab – and is that Rini on the slashing, carnatically-inflected violin? It could also be Raaginder – or, conceivably, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino’s Mauro Durante, who’s known for more tartantella-flavored sounds.

The vocals on Say It, a soul-infused, trip-hop-ish number, sound more like the misty, alluring Shilpa Ananth; the slithery bass is probably Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, but Devon Gates, Bubby Lewis and Endea Owens are also on the album somewhere.

I’ll Make It Up To You is one of the album’s most surreal numbers, a snarling Stonesy slide guitar rock tune: that has got to be Grupo Fantasma’s Adrian Quesada on guitar – or is that Jonathan Goldberger or Pete Eide showing off his secret inner Keith Richards?

On Pride in Rhythm, a swirly, hypnotic synth-and-percussion number – that’s got to be Rachel Eckroth playing keys – is followed by the album’s title track, a bracing action movie-type sequence with a sax duel at the center. Guessing that’s Pawan Benjamin on the edgy alto and Lauren Sevian on the smoky baritone.

Wild Wild East, an earlier track, gets reinvented in a storming electric bhangra version with carnatic singer Ganavya over a searing electric guitar-driven backdrop. Kushal Gaya’s wildfire vocals on the edgily modal Ja Ja Re Apne Mandirwa, a high-voltage jazz reinvention of a traditional Indian tune, are electrifying: and that has to be Goldberger on guitar here.

They close the album with In and Out, the album’s most traditional tune, at least until the beat goes halfspeed and the roaring electric guitars kick in, take your pick from above for the cast of characters. That sounds like Ganavya and Gaya on vocals again. Damn, this is one of those albums that must have been as fun to play on as it is to listen to – or dance to, for that matter.

Arooj Aftab’s Misty, Organic New Album Transcends Tragedy

Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab’s new album Vulture Prince – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its title from a Parsi funeral custom, where a body is left for the vultures in order to continue the natural cycle of life. The backstory is grim: the singer lost her younger brother Maher while making the record. Somehow she found the perseverance to transcend that tragedy. The central theme is revisiting places, and situations, and people, who may not exist anymore. With the lockdowners still exerting an iron grip on much of the world, the album couldn’t be more relevant.

As usual, Aftab defies categorization. Several of these songs could be called ghazals, but the instrumentation is more jazz and art-rock oriented. Baghon Main is a verdantly catchy remake of a track from her debut album, Maeve Gilchrist opening the song with a flourish on her harp, then Petros Klampanis’ stately bass and Juliette Jones’ distant violin enter the picture. Aftab’s meticulously modulated voice has taken on additional gravitas and maybe even more nuance – if that’s possible! – in the the years since.. And it’s the key to the album. Instrumental voicings that would have been spun through a mixer earlier in her career are organic now – the echo and doppler-like effects from the violin, for example.

Diya Hai has a similarly catchy, spiky backdrop, Badi Assad supplying  acoustic guitar with Jones’ shivery violin entering later, Aftab’s gently emotive voice just as haunting. She keeps her melismas low-key and lustrous in Inayaat, awash in violin, Aftab’s spare, hypnotic piano contrasting with the incisive pings and ripples of the harp. Percussionist Jamey Haddad’s shift from a drifting, ghazal-like feel to an implied qawwali groove is a striking touch.

Aftab multitracks her vocals in the starkly catchy minor-key dub reggae tune Last Night, a setting of a Rumi love poem with a handful of lines in English. Mohabbat comes across as a gently undulating mashup of Elizabethan British folk and Punjabi devotional music, Nadje Noordhuis’ resonant trumpet calm above Gyan Riley’s guitar, the harp and the tremoloing lines of the violin.

Aftab’s misty intonation of her late friend Annie Ali Khan’s lyrics in Saans Lo – an encouragement to move on and the closest thing here to Aftab’s swirly, immersive earlier work – is unselfconsciously wrenching. She closes the album with Suroor, her hazy vocals contrasting with the lively, lightly processed harp and a dancing rhythm: as imaginatively arranged as this is, it’s the closest thing to a traditional ghazal here.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra Tackle Ravi Shankar’s Groundbreaking Opera

Among the innumerable paradigm shifts Ravi Shankar introduced to the Indian raga tradition, one lesser-known achievement is his opera Sukanya. It’s a love story from ancient Indian mythology; the composer dedicated it to his wife, also named Sukanya. There’s a lavish live recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Murphy streaming at Spotify that you should hear if Indian sounds are your thing. Not only does Murphy have the inside track with this, having collaborated with Shankar as the work was being composed, but he also took on the task of completing it from  the composer’s notes after we lost the visionary sitarist in 2012.

This is Indian music with western harmonies rather than an attempt to bring in melodic influences from outside the raga canon. The orchestration is terse and imaginative, with echo effects and lots of jaunty counterpoint in the more energetic moments. Shankar uses the entirety of the ensemble, although not usually all at once, from drifting strings, to punchy low brass, to brooding woodwinds, along with sitar, sarangi, tabla, and shehnai oboe. Shankar was defined by his epic sensibility, and although this is sometimes nothing short of that, it’s also far from florid.

The lyrics are in English. Baritone Michel De Souza sings with passion and stern intensity, nimbly negotiating the vocals’ sometimes tricky carnatically-inspired ornamentation. Likewise, tenor Keel Watson brings a steely focus and seriousness to his role. In the title role, soprano Susanna Hurrell  takes a bel canto approach to the material rather than emulating a more melismatic, legato traditional Indian vocal style.

The shehnai typically serves as herald here, often with a foreboding, microtonal edge. Lingering nocturnal foreshowing builds to occasional bluster and bubbly, precise pageantry in the opera’s all-instrumental seventh interlude. The bit immediately afterward where the whole orchestra emulate the way a sitar is typically tuned onstage is priceless. Fans of the Brooklyn Raga Massive and the Navatman ensembles, who are pushing the envelope as imaginatively as Shankar did, will appreciate this orchestra’s sense of adventure and embrace of his alternately bright and hypnotic themes here.

The Silkroad Ensemble Release a Haunting, Surreal New Osvaldo Golijov Epic

Over the past practically three decades, the Silkroad Ensemble have been the world’s great champions of a blend of music from south Asia, through the Arabic-speaking world and the west. Their latest album, Falling Out of Time – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises a single, lavish, thirteen-part tone poem by contemporary classical composer Osvaldo Golijov, which hauntingly dovetails with the group’s esthetic. It may be the most stunningly accessible orchestral work the composer has ever written. It’s certainly the most eclectic, drawing on such diverse idioms as Indian music, classical Chinese theatre, jazz balladry and sounds of the Middle East.

This is a frequently operatically-tinged work, tracing a surreal, grim narrative surrounding the death of a child. Mythical creatures and archetypes are involved. The introduction, Heart Murmur rises from a brooding, skeletal Arabic-tinged taqsim to a darkly catchy, circling ghazal-like melody over a dancing, jazz-inflected pulse and the achingly intertwining voices of singers Biella da Costa and Nora Fischer.

Night Messengers is a stark, increasingly imploring nocturnal tableau, the womens’ voices wary and enigmatic over an all-star string quartet comprising half of Brooklyn Rider – violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords – with violinist Mazz Swift, and cellist Karen Ouzounian.

That sudden, stratospherically high harmony in the enigmatic Come Chaos is a real shock to the system: is that a voice, Wu Tong’s sheng, or a theremin? No spoilers!

Uneasy, fragmentary flickers from the strings followed by Wu Man’s pipa join to introduce the simply titled Step, rising to a harrowing intensity. The Lynchian dub interlude afterward comes as another real shock.

Shane Shanahan’s tabla and the singers’ acidic harmonies take over the hypnotic ambience as In Procession, a portrait of mass bereavement, gets underway, Kayhan Kalhor’s muted, desolate kamancheh solo at the center amid the string quartet. Troubled atmospherics waft and eventually permeate Walking, the suite’s drifting, central elegy, lowlit with echoey kamancheh, Dan Brantigan’s desolate trumpet and Shawn Conley’s spare jazz-inflected bass

An ambient lament featuring spiky pipa in contrast to Jeremy Flower’s synth foreshadows Fly, which with its aching ambience and jazz allusions mirrors the centerpiece. Go Now, the suite’s most immersive, restlessly resonant track, features a long, plaintive kamancheh intro, a similarly aching, vivid duet with the violin. Da Costa reaches for the rafters with the pipa trailing off morosely at the end.

Akeya (Where Are You) is a dissociative mashup of orchestral 1950s Miles Davis, Etta James moan and kabuki theatre, maybe. The ensemble hint at rebirth and redemption in the closing tableau, Breathe. Is the nameless dead boy at the center of the story a metaphor for the hope and joy that was stolen from us in 2020? What a piece of music for our time!

Shapeshiftingly Electrifying Indian-Inspired Big Band Jazz by the Modern Art Orchestra

Irrepressible, paradigm-shifting Hungarian ensemble the Modern Art Orchestra‘s latest album is an electrifying blend of Indian music and big band jazz. Bandleader and trumpeter Kornél Fekete-Kovács’ epic 21-track suite Foundations – Yamas and Niyamas is streaming at Spotify. One of his primary intentions in creating this was to demystify current-day Western cliches relating to yoga, as well as underscore the meditative commonalities shared by yoga practice and musical improvisation.

Throughout the suite, dramatically forceful passages contrast with hypnotic ambience, livened with trippy electronics, spoken word, Márton Fenyvesi’s spare acoustic guitar and Veronika Harcsa’s impassioned, usually English-language vocals. The Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s similarly vast reinterpretations of John Coltrane classics are a good point of comparison, although this is the reverse image of that group’s work, Indian music through the prism of jazz rather than jazz themes played as ragas. And this is typically much more energetic.

The band open the suite with a morning prayer tableau, a steady, suspenseful drone that rises with big swells and ripples from throughout the instruments. As a portrait of ahimsa – the concept of nonvolence – a series of fluttering, circling, aggressive riffs gives way to calm. The bandleader provides a warmly triumphant intro, echoed by soprano saxophonist Kristóf Bacsó’s optimistic, sailing lines over a lush, luminous backdrop in their exploration of satya (truthfulness).

A delicious bass trombone loop foreshadows an utterly surreal jazz poetry piece featuring the starry pianos of Béla Szakcsi Lakatos and Gábor Cseke. János Ávéd’s bluesy bansuri flute solo, as the majesty behind him decays to rapt stillness to close the first disc, is one of the album’s high points.

The second disc begins with a contrast between sparse calm and barely controlled mass chaos, Áron Komjáti’s acoustic guitar a centering point. There’s no shortage of irony in how Bacsó and Harcsa channel trippy contentment in the album’s iciest, most echoey interlude.

Circling, tense Darcy James Argue-like phrases intertwine as the atmosphere grows even more hypnotic but energetic. Fekete-Kovács delivers his most lyrical, overtly Indian-tinged solo as the band waft their way into Tapas (referring to the yogic concept of self-discipline rather than Spanish snacks). From there János Ávéd’s ebullient, dynamic tenor sax makes a bridge to brooding svadhana (i.e. introspection). The group wind up the album with Fekete-Kovács’s muted trumpet drifting through the mist and then a benedictory jazz waltz sung by Harcsa.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

A Global Cast of Characters Reinvent Classic Indian Themes With a Massive Webcast

There’s no small irony in that the annual 24-hour Ragas Live Marathon broadcast wouldn’t go global until a moment where live music had been illegalized in most parts of the world. The good news is that this year’s performances – which began as a radio broadcast on little WKCR in Brooklyn – have spread to include artists performing live on their own turf around the world. In keeping with the festival’s esthetic, this year’s lineup features an allstar cast both from within the Indian raga tradition as well as the worlds of jazz, latin music, classical music and klezmer, among other styles. This year it’s streaming at wkcr.org startimg at 7 PM on Nov 21 and going until 7 the following evening, Nov 22, as well as via video link from Pioneer Works.

Past years have featured a lot of jazz musicians who’ve found nirvana in Indian music. As usual, the ever-growing multitudes in the Brooklyn Raga Massive collective, who founded the festival, are widely represented. This year’s stars include but are hardly limited to avant garde icon (and Indian music devotee) Terry Riley, legendary tabla personality Zakir Hussain, kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, coastal Venezuelan trance-dance bandleader Betsayda Machado, Middle Eastern jazz trumpet visionary Amir ElSaffar and klezmer powerhouse Andy Statman.

If this sounds intriguing, dial up a random raga on the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s even more massive Ragas Live Festival album, streaming at Bandcamp. Virtually everything on this record – probably the most epic album released by any New York group this century – is worth hearing. It’s been sitting around this blog’s archive for the past couple of years, and a couple of hours’ worth of listening only scratches the surface. For fans of Indian sounds, it’s a serendipitous look at where the music is going – and what we will be enjoying in concert after we liberate ourselves from the lockdown.