There was a point during the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s Lincoln Center debut last Thursday where violinist Arun Ramamurthy built a solo out of a long, uneasily crescendoing, shivery volley of notes, up to a big crescendo – where he stopped cold, midway through a measure. And then glanced around and smiled for a split second, as if to say, “Good luck following THAT!”
There was another moment earlier on where the entire eight-piece ensemble onstage was basically playing a round, everybody in the band hitting on a different beat, a mesmerizing lattice of kaleidoscopic Indian counterpoint. The group followed an increasingly dark trajectory out of lithely circling improvisation on ancient themes, through a pensive and purposeful Ravi Shankar piece anchored by sitarist Neel Murgai, to an absolutely haunting original by bassist Michael Gam cappped off by an achingly plaintive Aakash Mittal sax solo.
Then there was the longest piece of the night, a trickily rhythmic, vamping, psychedelic epic that evoked the Grateful Dead far more than any Indian classical music. Which was the point of the program. Lincoln Center’s irrepressible, charismatic impresario Meera Dugal had booked members of the group last year for a panel discussion on the future of raga music in America, so this was a chance for the multicultural ensemble to bring that future to life in all its psychedelic glory.
They started slowly and gently, as if to ease the sold-out audience into the concept. Singer Roopa Mahadevan – who may be the most electrifying voice in all of New York – worked her subtle side for all it was worth, with her minutely melismatic take of a raga dedicated to the goddess of knowledge and the arts, Saraswati. Kane Mathis played kora on a blithely dancing number and then switched to oud for the night’s most ominously Middle Eastern-tinged piece, lowlit by Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer, a more trebly cousin to the iconic Indian santoor. After almost two hours onstage, the group closed with a wickedly catchy yet tight-as-a-drum jam on a raga that drummer/tabla player Sameer Gupta told the crowd that they’d recognize instantly. And he was right.
The Brooklyn Raga Massive’s raison d’etre is to use Indian classical music as a stepping-off point for improvisation, be it psychedelically inclined or jazzwise. Here, they shifted through a simmering, atmospherically sunset take of John Coltrane’s India; the week before last, they ably raga-ized jazz material as diverse as McCoy Tyner’s African Village and Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn.
The contingent onstage at Lincoln Center also featured the intricate and energetically eclectic talents of bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, Karavika bandleader and violinist Trina Basu, acoustic guitarist Camila Celin, handpan percussionist Adam Maalouf and tabla player Ehren Hanson. The collective, with its rotating cast of members and leaders, play every Wednesday at 8 PM at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St. in the Atlantic Yards area. Cover is $15; take the 2 to Bergen St.
The Lincoln Center Atrium continues to offer all sorts of similarly deep fun. The next show there is tomorrow, Oct 27 at 7:30 PM with Cuatro Sukiyaki Minimal, who play hypnotically circling, pensive Asian and Latin-influenced themes with thumb piano, traditional Japanese instruments and Korean percussion. The multimedia performance is free, so early arrival is always a good idea here.