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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.

A Gorgeously Kinetic, Restless New Album by Haunting, Dynamic Violinist Layale Chaker

It may be early in the year, but the leading contender for best album of 2019 so far is Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker’s hauntingly kinetic Inner Rhyme, which hasn’t hit her music page yet but is due out momentarily. Chaker is equally at home in the worlds of Middle Eastern and western classical music. A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late, great pianist Edward Said – she’s also the only composer ever commissioned by the Bayreuther Philharmonike Orchestra, who premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 last year. Bayreuth: Beirut – makes sense right? She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Jan 22 at 8 PM at the Stone (now located in the Glass Box Theatre on the first floor at the New School at 55 W 13th St). Cover is $20.

The album’s premise is ambitious: to create a purely musical suite encompassing the rhythmic cycles of classical Arabic poetry, in the process developing a new instrumental style incorporating the lyrical accents of the words which have been part and parcel of classical Middle Eastern music for the better part of the past thousand years.

Return to Jaykur, the album’s opening track, has a brooding sway, pianist Phillip Golub and bassist Nick Dunston building a tersely dancing interchange beneath Chaker’s imploring upward circles as cellist Jake Charkey scorches the lows. After the fire, the music recedes to a resonant but propulsive elegance in the same vein as Marcel Khalife’s orchestral works.

Ushaq is a stark, intense, chromatically haunting number set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone. Relentless, true to its title, gets a stabbing, insistently catchy,  minor-key pulse, its restlessness as much a function of percussionist Adam Maalouf’s rhythm, which hints at bolero but never quite goes there. Dunston’s pitchblende melismas signal a spare, plaintive Chaker solo.

A bracing, suspenseful early-morning miniature for violin, bass and percussion sets the stage for the Mikhammas Suite, rising from a strikingly minimalist, emphatic syncopation to an energetic dance. The second part follows the same path, fueled by Charkey’s slashing low-register riffs. The conclusion is much slower, just short of a dirge, opening with Golub’s gleaming chords, then gaining momentum as Chaker develops moody variations on a biting chromatic melody.

The picturesque Alight Here has wry humor – why can’t this bird make up its mind? – before a flamenco-ish drive kicks in, Golub’s spare piano contrasting with persistent staccato from the bass. The album’s most epic number, On the Trunk of an Olive Tree is the one place where the band expand into jazz: the lush yet highly rhythmic work of Tarek Yamani comes to mind. The group conclude with a brief, hazy postlude.

Chaker explains her mission with characteristic eloquence: “Much like our free-spirited Bedouins, our music does not know of the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into several little states, nor of the dividing of land and history. It does not know anything either about the birth of crisis and striving for existence, identity and domination in between those freshly pencil-drawn frontiers. It testifies of the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil and water, every soul living in the different lines of that newly-decided map. From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”