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No New Abnormal

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The Brooklyn Raga Massive Celebrate Six Years of Cutting-Edge, Transcendent New Indian Sounds in Red Hook This Saturday Night

The Brooklyn Raga Massive dedicate themselves to taking indian music to places it’s never been before. But rather than doing the John McLaughlin thing and jazzing up ancient Indian melodies, they’re Indianizing jazz, soul and Middle Eastern music, and the avant garde – and also playing their own updates on the classic raga themes that the group’s core members have immersed themselves in over the years. Their rotating talent base comprises some of New York’s best musicians, and they have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, who are headlining the group’s sixth anniversary show this Saturday night, June 2, starting at 7:30 PM at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. Cover is $30.

You might wonder why they’d be doing this in Red Hook. That’s because the Raga Massive also have a weekly Thursday night residency around the bend at the Jalopy. Saturday night’s two opening acts are excellent as well. The first one, pointillistically psychedelic instrumental trio House of Waters are led by national champion hammered dulcimer player Max ZT. They’re not an Indian band per se – they sound like no other band on the planet – but they’re at home with classical Indian melodies. Afterward, Hindustani/North Indian singer Samarth Nagarkar goes deep into classical repertoire, backed by harmonium and tabla.

The Women’s Raga Massive’s most recent show was a frequently transcendent Saturday night concert at the end of March at Joe’s Pub. The first half featured a cycle of small-group improvisations; the second was dedicated to transgressive medieval Indian composer and poet Meera Bai, who is sort of the female Rumi. It could also be said that Rumi was the male Meera – their mysticism and angst-fueled, lovelorn themes disguised as religious poetry have a lot in common. “She’s sort of the original feminist – she followed her heart, she followed her spirit,” co-leader and violinist Trina Basu explained beforehand.

The night’s lineup was spectacular. True to their inclusive spirit, the Women’s Raga Massive don’t necessarily exclude dudes (there were a couple, Max ZT and bassist Perry Wortman, on this particular bill). Anjna Swaminathan played violin alongside Basu, with Amali Premawardhana on cello, Camila Celin on guitar and sarod, Roshni Samlal on tabla and  Lauren Crump on percussion. Massive co-leader and singer Priya Darshini fronted the group, alongside Morley Kamen.

Celin opened the night with a starry, searching, reverb-infused acoustic guitar solo over an ever-present recorded drone. Crump joined her as the music shifted toward a hypnotic, Malian-tinged duskcore groove that grew funkier and then more shadowy. From there a parade of musicians followed in turn.

Samlal and Crump built a scampering yet suspenseful percussion interlude. Swaminathan then joined Samlal, slowly rising from melismatic flickers and surreal echo phrases to restless chromatic riffage. Premawardhana came up to start a lively, catchy cello-violin conversation, spanning pretty much the entire sonic spectrum available to a string band. The addition of Basu completed the echoey picture as the music grew more phantasmagorical and sepulchral. Premawardhana’s rich, low washes drove the sound upward and then back to ghostly territory. Eventually, Morley joined them and took the music in the direction of jazz poetry and new age ambience.

Basu and Premawardhana’s lyrical string ensemble Karavika, joined by Max ZT, played their big crowd-pleaser, Sunrise, first digging in hard for a triumphant, heroic sway over bubbling tabla and dulcimer, then bringing the central raga theme front and center, with a sudden cadenza out. The Women’s Raga Massive’s mashup of a Meera piece with raga Darbari Kanada followed a suspenseful, pouncing, tangoish groove, violins uneasily soaring overhead.

The full ensemble closed the night with the epic Khusro meets Mirabai. Slowly coalescing as bass, dulcimer and finally violins carried the theme, Darshini pulled the majestic swaying raga together with as much insistence as longing, up to a long stampede out. Because this group relies so much on improvisation, this Saturday’s show will no doubt be completely different, if with similarly irrepressible imagination and spirited playing. You can get lost in Red Hook Saturday night.

Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Version of Terry Riley’s In C: The Most Psychedelic Album of 2017

Considering how much Indian music has influenced Terry Riley’s work, It makes sense that the iconic composer and pioneer of what’s come to be known as indie classical would give the thumbs-up to Brooklyn Raga Massive’s recording of his famous suite. The irrepressible New York collective can’t resist mashing up just about anything with classical Indian sounds: their previous album tackled a bunch of famous John Coltrane tunes. They’re playing the album release show for the new one – streaming at Bandcamp – on Oct 6 at 8 PM at the Poisson Rouge; $20 adv tix are recommended.  

They open the album with an alap (improvisation) on Raga Bihag, strings fluttering and slowly massing behind a rather jubilant bansuri flute line (that’s either Eric Fraser or Josh Geisler), handing off to bandleader Neel Murgai’s sitar, then Arun Ramamurthy’s spiraling violin before the sitar takes the band into the first variation on Riley’s 48 cells. A cynic might say that this is the best part of the album – either way, the band could have gone on four times as long and nobody would be complaining. 

Riley wrote In C on the piano in 1964, but just about every kind of ensemble imaginable – from flashmobs with flash cards, to Serena Jost’s army of fifty cellists – have played it. Any way it’s performed, it’s very hypnotic, this version especially. The whole group is in on it from the first insistent rhythmic measure, vocally and instrumentally, with the occasional minutely polyrhythmic variation. This is a mighty, full-force version of the massive, blending Trina Basu and Ken Shoji’s violins, Aaron Shragge’s dragon mouth trumpet, Michael Gam’s bass, Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer,Adam Malouf’s cello, David Ellenbogen’s guitar, with Timothy Hill and Andrew Shantz on vocals, Lauren Crump on cajon, Vin Scialla on riq and frame drum, Roshni Samlal and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

As the piece goes on, dancing flute and sitar accents answer each other with a gleeful abandon. Echo effects pulse like a stoned quasar, then about halfway in a triplet groove emerges and then straightens out. Kanes Mathis’ oud scampers like a street urchin running from the cops, then provides a low-register anchor for the fluttering strings. Which shift to the foreground, then recede as individual voices throughout the group signal the next change.

There are places where it brings to mind Brian Jones’ trippy loop collages on Their Satanic Majesties Request; elsewhere, the White Album’s most surreal experimental segments. Bottom line is that there hasn’t been an album nearly as psychedelically enveloping as this one released this year. How does it feel to listen to this album without being high? Weird. Either way, it’s great late-night listening for stoners and nonsmokers alike. 

A Couple of Fun, Cutting-Edge Upcoming Indian Music Shows to Put on the Calendar

Mridangam player Bala Skandon leads Akshara, a Brooklyn Raga Massive spinoff who play dynamic, innovative, propulsively cheery instrumentals based on ancient Indian carnatic themes. The band’s debut album, In Time – an apt title from a group led by a drummer – is due to be up at Bandcamp soon.

It opens with Mind the Gap, a joyously dancing, verdant piece fueled by Jay Gandhi’s bansuri flute over a subtly morphing shuffle groove. As it builds steam, there’s a lushly rippling hammered dulcimer solo from House of Waters’ Max ZT and a couple of grinningly microtone-infused violin solos (either Arun Ramamurthy or Karavika‘s Trina Basu – it’s hard to tell who’s who).

Likewise, there are two cellos on the majestically swaying Mohana Blues, which is up at Bandcamp. Dave Eggar and Amali Premawardhana anchor Gandhi’s spare, enigmatic midrange lines, then join with the violins for a lilting, Celtic-tinged melody.  Opus in 5 follows a traditional raga tangent, violin and flute in tandem as the lively tune builds and the rhythm grows more energetic, then the band backs off for some takadimi drum vocalizing and a spare conversation between Skandon’s mridangam and Nitin Mitta’s tabla.

The dulcimer more or less assumes the role a sitar would play in Shadjam, strings and flute doubling the increasingly energetic melody line, down to a moody, nocturnal Gandhi solo and then a lusciously melismatic, crescendoing violin solo – that’s got to be Ramamurthy! 

The album winds up with the epic Urban Kriti. A long, spare dulcimer solo builds suspense up to an almost frantic peak, uneasily shivery cello and symphonic cadenzas trading off with lively riffage from the drums.  The band don’t have anything scheduled this month, but Basu and Ramamurthy have a rare duo show this September 10 at 3 PM at the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd. in Long Island City. The concert is free with museum admission, take the N to Broadway and then a healthy 15-block walk. And Akshara are playing the album release show on Oct 12 at 7:30 PM at Drom; adv tix are $20. If you love the cutting-edge collaborations that have been fermenting in the Brooklyn Raga Massive over the past several months, don’t miss this.

New York’s Ultimate Jamband, the Brooklyn Raga Massive Make a Historic Lincoln Center Debut

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.

House of Waters Bring Their Gorgeous Psychedelic Textures to the Rockwood

House of Waters are one of New York’s most interesting and unique bands. Part funky jamband, part Afrobeat and part pan-Asian, there is no other group in the world who sound remotely like them. In a casually expert way, frontman Max ZT is the Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer, an instrument on which he is a former American national champion. Yet while American folk music informs his songwriting, his rippling, hypnotic, warmly psychedelic instrumentals draw on styles from around the globe. As one would assume from a disciple of Shivkumar Sharma, India’s greatest master of the santoor – an ancestor of the hammered dulcimer – he’s taking his instrument to places it’s never gone before. The lush, dreamy quality of many of these songs disguises the fact that there are only three instruments in the band: the dulcimer, Moto Fukushima’s eight-string bass and Luke Notary’s cajon. They’re playing the small room at the Rockwood at 11 PM on May 17; if global sounds with a psychedelic edge are your thing, you’ll love this band.

Their album is titled Revolution: their kind of revolution is a good-natured, upbeat one. It’s a generous fifteen-track mix, the resonant ring of the dulcimer blending with the undulating bass and a thicket of percussion. Sometimes the dulcimer and bass double each others’ lines; other times they play off each other, or trade places, dulcimer anchoring a trancey groove as the bass sails overhead. There’s often a layer of dirt in the tone of the bass, and Fukushima uses all eight strings, especially if he takes a rapidfire guitar lead. Sometimes the beats are straight-up, other times they’re more tricky. That it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what speaks to the intricacy of the arrangements and the chemistry in the band.

A couple of the numbers work variations around a central tone as in indie rock, one of them rising to a big, insistent, anthemic stadium-rock crescendo, the other going into unexpectedly moody, ominous territory. Another track has a swaying triplet rhythm and a warm Mediterranean feel. Sound of Impermanence works around spiraling upper-register licks on the highest strings of the bass, while Sabula rises to a majestic, spacious atmosphere, Max ZT choosing his spots. The album’s most energetic cut, Agnolim, has the dulcimer machinegunning over a nonchalantly catchy, low-key groove – and then the bass goodnaturedly takes over. The closing track, Ball in Cage sets spacious Asian riffs over interwoven loops in both the lows and the highs from the bass. There’s also a terse rainy-day theme and a brief interlude that sounds like a resonator guitar solo but clearly isn’t.

Good Imaginative Bands on a Cold Night in Gowanus

For once, a seasonably cold Friday night didn’t keep the Brooklyn massive indoors. Down the block from the trash truck depot at the edge of where Gowanus meets Sunset Park, a boisterously responsive crowd gathered at the unexpectedly lavish, relatively new venue SRB to see two of New York’s most original bands.

Karikatura were first on the bill, playing a slinky mix of latin rock and gypsy rock with some reggae and ska thrown in as well. Their frontman played beats on a conga head on several songs and sang nonchalantly smart, socially conscious lyrics over a fiery horn section (alto or tenor sax plus trombone), plus a guitarist playing biting, often flamenco-tinged lines on a nylon-stringed acoustic-electric over the rhythm section’s eclectic grooves. The most infectious of all the songs was Bailarina, which nicked the riff from the famous Algerian freedom fighter anthem Ya Rayyeh and turned it into an unexpectedly angst-fueled reflection by a guy who’s probably more infatuated with a dancing girl than he should be. It’s too loud to talk over the music, all my friends are drunk and I don’t like the idea of other guys hitting on you, the poor dude laments.

Celi, from the band’s most recent ep, Departures, was more hipswinging and seductive. Shortly after that they went into the edgy reggae liberation anthem Una Idea, a richly bass-heavy track from that release, then brought that idea back toward the end of the set with a soaring version of Some Kind Of (Free), a standout tune from their Muzon ep from a couple of years ago. They finally cut loose and jammed on their last number, with a hard-hitting bass break and then a blazing conversation between tenor sax and trombone. Karikatura are a popular touring act  in Europe and south of the border: it was good to see them on their home turf.

House of Waters are one of the most original bands on the planet. Their name is apt: frontman Max ZT, a national champion on the hammered dulcimer, played intricate, incisively rippling melodies throughout their set alongside cajon player Luke Notary and eight-string bassist Moto Fukushima. On the first song, Fukushima played through an octave pedal for a wry, techy tone that contrasted with the rustic feel of the dulcimer. Their music was as danceable as it was psychedelic: on the occasions when the dulcimer passsed off a rhythmic riff to the cajon, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was playing what. On a couple of tunes, Fukushima hit his pedal for a resonant, djeridoo-like drone; he also meandered through a Jerry Garcia-like solo on the high frets and then a wry disco bassline on one of the last songs. On another, Notary switched to ngoni lute as the drummer from Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band joined them and played a slinky cumbia groove on guacharaca.

Max ZT is a force of nature and a lot of fun to watch, his hands a blur as he fired off supersonically shuffling licks that sounded almost like a mandolin in places. Bits and pieces of gypsy, Appalachian and soukous melodies rang out and pinged through the mix. The next-to-last song – a track from the band’s Revolution album – was intoxicatingly good, shifting suddenly out of  a slow, moody gypsy-flavored vamp when the band took it doublespeed.

Kessel and his Two Cent Band were scheduled to play their goodnaturedly high-energy oldtimey swing and gypsy jazz at some later point in the evening, but by then it was midnight in Gowanus and time to find out if the trains were still running (they were). Catch you next time, guys – they’re at Union Hall in Park Slope on Feb 2 and then at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg on Feb 6.