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Tag: Rajna Swaminathan

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

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Aakash Mittal at Nationa Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

Amir ElSaffar Refines His Majestic, Transcendent New Middle Eastern Jazz at NYU

Why would anyone want to see the same band play the same piece more than once? For starters, there are always plenty of surprises when Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound make their way through Not Two, the visionary multi-instrumentalist/composer’s 2017 suite. From this perspective, was a third time a charm? On one hand, it’s hard to imagine a more transcendent performance of this lavish, titanic work than the album release show in the financial district last June, where they played the whole massive thing. On the other, their show last night at NYU’s Skirball Center was plenty rapturous…and uproariously fun.

Much of the suite is absolutely harrowing, but ElSaffar has a devastating, deadpan wit, and this time out he was in a particularly good mood. A Chicagoan by birth, he was clearly psyched to bring the band back, “Fishtailing all the way,” from a deep-freeze midwestern tour.

What they play is a new kind of music, based on Middle Eastern maqam modes and microtonal scales, but with majestic, sometimes ominous, often stormy group crescendos which draw on the bandleader’s time in Cecil Taylor’s improvisational big band. Although Not Two – whose title speaks to the pitfalls of manichaean thinking – is a fully composed score, ElSaffar will shift gears and call on any number of soloists depending where the seventeen-piece orchestra is going in the moment.

By comparison to the suite’s live debut at Lincoln Center in April of 2015 and then the epic album release show, this one was shorter and seemed more concise. Although much of it is brooding, even shattering, the whole group seemed to be stoked to be off the road and back on their home turf. Maybe as a consequence, solos all around seemed more animated as well – with the exception of tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen’s two long, methodically suspenseful upward tangents while the band coalesced in a somber grey mist behind him.

The crowd gave their most breathless applause for cellist Naseem Alatrash, whose elegaic, mournfully circling solo early in the suite refused to cave in to any kind of easy resolution. Likewise, he and ElSaffar’s violist sister Dena – leader of the similarly paradigm-shifting, somewhat smaller ensemble Salaam – held the audience rapt with their poignant dialogue a little later on.

Percussionist Tim Moore anchored the suite’s most haunting segment, Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son) with a chillingly echoing, funereal thump on frame drum as the group slowly swelled in an invocation of longing and loss. On the other side of the emotional equation, it turned out that the title of Penny Explosion looks back to ElSaffar’s childhood, when he and his sister would fill a jar with pennies – and then dump them on a tile floor, to max out the reverb.

Mohamed Saleh was charged with delivering a handful of the evening’s most pensively resonant solos, both on oboe and english horn. To his left, JD Parran took over the lows on bass sax and also joined the hazy ambience on clarinet. Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal took two of the night’s most acerbic, intense, chromatically slashing solos; guitarist Miles Okazaki remained in even more low-key, terse mode.

Vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz reveled in the opportunity to fire off endless volleys of microtones while pianist John Escreet punctuated the rings and ripples with an exploratory precision. Oudists Zafer Tawil and Georges Ziadeh built a devastating rustle, eventually joined by buzuq player Tareq Abboushi and bassist Carlo DeRosa, as the night’s vertigo-inducing final number, Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, built steam through several surreal variations on themes from throughout the suite. Drummer Adam Cruz, clearly psyched to get the chance to step in, gave the music a spring-loaded swing. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan’s stygian bubble was a river of sound all its own, underground.  Driving the highest peaks and most poignant lulls, the composer began with stately ripples on his santoor, rose eventually to blisteringly aching volleys on trumpet and also sang in an impassioned, microtonal baritone.

At the end, they flipped the script with a vaudevillian encore that had everybody laughing out loud: comic relief wasn’t such a bad idea after the intensity. ElSaffar’s next show with this ensemble is on March 3 at 8 PM at the North Beach Bandshell, 7275 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach; cover is $25/$20 stud/srs.

Amir Elsaffar’s Rivers Of Sound: An Imaginative Sonic Landscape

by Aakash Mittal

Rivers of Sound offers a captivating glimpse into Amir Elsaffar’s artistic journey and contributes a distinct sonic perspective to the body of creative music. Within the piece Elsaffar molds a soundscape out of colorful improvisation, shifting momentum, and inventive orchestration. The score is brought to life by a core ensemble of seventeen improvisers playing an array of instruments that include bass saxophone, mridangam, and ney flute. The music has a sense of spontaneity as Elsaffar assesses the sounds of the moment, cues in solos, and orchestrates new densities on stage. Rather than experiencing a work frozen in time by strict notation, the audience journeys with Elsaffar as he listens and makes intuitive decisions about the music. The result is an unforgettable event where the listener is able to traverse the imagination of this dynamic composer.

Meera Dugal curated the Brooklyn premiere at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on Ocobert 14. Dugal often partners with artists to construct narratives that advance identity and social inquiry though the medium of sound. This esthetic resonated beautifully with the venue’s mission to harbor new and adventurous music. The room’s high ceilings, brick walls, and modular performance space offers composers a blank canvas for collaboration, experimentation, and creative statement. This form of grassroots partnership between curator, venue, and artist is an important aspect of Elsaffar’s creative process.

Elsaffar’s sound emanates from musical experiences that include performing with Cecil Taylor, studying Baghdadi maqam, and playing in the Chicago jazz scene. Yet Elsaffar never gets bogged down with the “burden of representation” that can befall an artist. Rather, he employs the timbres of instruments such as buzuq, vibraphone,and English horn to engineer imaginative orchestrations. Early on in the piece there was a moment where Zafer Tawil’s oud, JD Parran’s bass saxophone and Naseem Al Atrash’s cello sustained a rich harmony. The buzz of the saxophone reed augmented the viscosity of the oud and cello timbres. A sonic color emerged from the texture that contained both a palpable tension and a beautiful dissonance.

At other times, Elsaffar held the audience’s attention through shifting momentums and layers of rhythmic punctuation. Within minutes of the piece’s opening, drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Carlo DeRosa ignited a torrent of energy. Shortly after, Parran’s improvisation erupted, the saxophonist’s dense melodic lines resolving to an almost spectral altissimo melody within the rhythm section’s driving pulse. Following this deluge of sound, the texture evaporated and the audience was left with the ethereal resonance of Elsaffar’s own santur and Naseem Alatrash’s cello. Elsaffar’s improvisation began to imply time as he built an infectious rhythm with the modular sound created by mridangam artist Rajna Swaminthan. Then Tawil and pianist Aruan Ortiz joined the musical conversation with their complementary phrasing. The resulting tension was magnetic, compelling the listener to lean in and move with the beat.

Once the groove was established, Amir led the ensemble with melodically intersecting shapes and angles. Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen joined oboist Mohammed Saleh and alto saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol in contributing intervallic leaps to the texture; cycling rhythms melted and reformed, continuing for a full ninety minutes.

Tempos ranged from the thrill of a blistering free-fall to the slow purposeful weight of ritualistic footsteps. Throughout the work, a pulsing ebb and flow emerged from the creative design of genuine experience.

In addition to being a composer, Elsaffar performs in a number of ensembles as a trumpet player, santur player, and vocalist. While all of Elsaffar’s projects are dynamic, creative, and deserve mention, Rivers of Sound is significant because it embodies his journey and the community he has built over the past 18 years. Each of the ensemble members hails from a unique time in Elsaffar’s life. Oboe and English horn player Mohammad Saleh started playing with Amir eighteen years ago in the West-East Divan Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim, when both musicians were undertaking a deep study of western classical technique. During a sequence of collaborative trips to Europe starting in 2013, Amir began to work with Cassol, who was featured with an electrifying solo of descending shapes and lines at the Pioneer Works concert. Elsaffar began playing with Tawil (who is also featured on percussion) and his fellow oudist George Ziadeh in 2001 in New York City. Mridangam player Rajna Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki have worked with Elsaffar within Swaminathan’s project Rajas. Elsaffar’s multi-instrumentalist sister, Dena Elsaffar co-leads Salaam, an Iraqi maqam ensemble with Amir, in addition to contributing her lyrical viola improvisations to Rivers of Sound. Each artist in the band has an equally unique relationship to Amir’s story.

Rivers of Sound immersed the Pioneer Works audience within visceral rhythmic layers and transcendent melodies. Nearly two decades of Amir Elsaffar’s artistic experiences, diverse collaborations, and creative thoughts join together to add this luminous musical journey to the canon of creative music.

Karavika Bring Their Gorgeously Dancing Americana-Spiced Indian String Music to Joe’s Pub

Karavika are one of the most interesting, individualistically compelling ensembles in New York. Their new second album Of Earth and Sky – streaming at Bandcamp – blends classical Indian styles with American folk tinges. Like the music of any other culture, Indian music spans the entire emotional spectrum; Karavika’s is on the introspective, hypnotic side, punctuated by purposeful, animated soloing and catchy string riffage. The core of the band is Trina Basu on violin, guitar and vocals, Amali Premawardhana on cello, and Perry Wortman on bass and mandolin, bolstered by Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Roopa Mahadevan on vocals, Jay Gandhi on bansuri, Advait Shah and Sameer Gupta on tabla and Rajna Swaminathan on mrudangam. They’re playing the album release show on August 11 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. Sarod-percussion duo Camila Celin & Roshni Samlal open the night; general admission is $15.

The album’s opening track, Your Passing Touch builds out of a fluttery bed of strings under spiky mandolin, then hits a catchy, plaintively waltzing groove: you could call it Indian folk noir. A jaunty minor-key blues violin solo is the last thing you’d expect, but it’s tasty and it has bite. A droll false ending sets up a remarkable, parallel mando solo by Wortman. It ends unresolved.

All the Pretty Little Horses begins with a muted, looping pizzicato violin riff anchoring a moody, searching bass solo, then the vocals kick in, a tender lullaby that’s one part Appalachian folk, one part Indian, with a marvelously terse cello solo. The first of two ragas, Raga Behag is probably the shortest raga you’ll ever hear, a plaintive, melismatic violin solo over a steady cello drone that rises a bit as the piece goes on. The Time Is Now sets a warmly nocturnal string melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion, Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo setting up a brightly soaring one from Basu.

The second micro-raga, Raga Kalyani blends dancing violin melismatics with gracefully exploratory vocalese. The album’s most epic. anthemic track, peppered with all sorts of cleverly flitting interludes, is Thillana Jaya Ragamalika, Mahadevan’s lilting vocals over a balletesque groove. Young Leaves of the Bodhi Tree is a return to spare, brooding intensity, a quiet showstopper that unfolds with fingerpicked guitar, vocalese harmonies and cello, picking up steam with an emphatically potent bass solo. The final cut is Oh Watch the Stars, a gently triumphant lullaby that perfectly capsulizes Karavika’s vision of a seamless match between the inward-directed but simmering rapture of Indian music and the comfortable rusticity of Americana. Only in New York, folks.