New York Music Daily

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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. 

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This Year’s Noguchi Museum Concert Series Winds Up With Enchantingly Hypnotic, Vivid Indian Music

Sunday afternoon at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Arun Ramamurthy and Trina Basu coiled and spun and wound their way through an intricate, cinematic, constantly shifting series of themes anchored in thousands of years of Indian classical music. Both violinists have formidable chops to match the eclectic range of their compositions. Without watching closely, it was often impossible to tell who was playing what, their harmonies were so seamless. Supposedly, couples grow to resemble each other, and while there’s no mistaking her for him, their styles are similar. Ramamurthy is probably the more likely of the two to pull an epic crescendo out of thin air, which he did with a slithery cadenza about midway through the show. Basu often infuses her work with a puckish sense of humor, and there were a couple of points at this show where she playfully goosed her husband through a couple of almost ridiculously amusing exchanges of pizzicato,

The two began the show with a raga, immediately introducing the suspense as the sparse phrases of their opening alap slowly came together. Often Basu would ground the music with austerely resonant, viola-like washes, but then the two violins would exchange roles and she’d go soaring while Ramamurthy held down the lows, often with a wary, melismatic edge. Meanwhile, percussionist Rich Stein, who’d first joined the fun with a precise, tabla-like rhythm, went to his cymbals for a lush mist and by the show’s midpoint was getting all sorts of wry snowflake effects out of his shakers and rattles.

All the compositions were based on classic raga themes. A melodic minor number brought a storm theme to life, but this was no ordinary monsoon! The group worked endless permutations on the theme of a boat rocking on the waves, then suddenly there was a sparse after-the-rain idyll. Just when it seemed they’d reached a calm, the storm came back…and it wasn’t going to leave until everybody was drenched! Of all the trick endings, false starts and stops, this was the least expected one of the afternoon, long with an even more invigorating, glissandoing detour toward free jazz before Ramamurthy steered it back toward shore.

The trio closed with Migration, a new composition that seemed to portray a very complicated flock of birds making their way to a new destination, scattered with tense, fluttery clusters, calmly sailing interludes and finally a long, hypnotic percussion interlude. Ramamurthy and Basu’s next show is on Oct 21 at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga extravaganza; $30 tix are available for three-hour time slots for those who aren’t planning on making the museum their hotel for the entire night.

This was the final concert in the annual senes here in the museum’s back garden booked by the Bang on a Can organization. For a Sunday when the trains were completely FUBAR, there was a surprisingly good crowd, the audience squeezing themselves onto a few wooden benches, others seated on the garden’s rough gravel on bamboo mats supplied by the museum staff.

The museum itself, just down the block from the Socrates Sculpture Garden, is also worth a trip whether or not there’s music. Under ordinary circumstances, it’s a comfortable walk from the Broadway N train station. Isamu Noguchi was an interesting character: his stone and metal sculptures blend cubism, Eastern Island iconography and desert mesas. He seems to have been caught between several worlds. After Pearl Harbor, he interned himself in an Arizona concentration camp for his fellow Japanese-Americans, hoping to provide some art therapy, but quickly grew disillusioned…and then had a hard time getting released. The current exhibit there documents those struggles during an especially ugly moment in American history.

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.

Lavish, Paradigm-Shifting Indian Choral Sounds from the Navatman Music Collective

Like the Brooklyn Raga Massive, the Navatman Music Collective are a semi-rotating cast of some of New York’s most innovative Indian instrumental and vocal talent. Just the fact that they’re the only carnatic choir in this hemisphere attests to the group’s adventurousness. Bands have been making rock music out of ancient carnatic themes since the days of the Beatles and Grateful Dead, and then there’s Bollywood, but Indian classical ensembles typically have no use for harmony because it doesn’t exist in the tradition.

When the Navatman Music Collective harmonize, their sound is lush, and otherworldly, and unlike any other choir in the world. Other times, they’ll all sing a single melody line in unison, or with the men and women at each end of an octave. The group are playing the final day of their enticingly eclectic Drive East Festival of Indian music and dance at 2 PM on August 27 at Dixon Place; $20 tix are available along with numerous multiple-show deals and full-festival passes.

The group’s debut album, An Untimely Joy is streaming at youtube. They open strikingly with An Ode in Eight Verses, a stately processional set to an uneasily melismatic, Arabic-tinged mode over an oscillating drone and mysterious bell accents.

The second track, Offering (an excerpt from raga Gavati) features percussionist Rajna Swaminathan and violinist Anjna Swaminathan, cantering along on a tricky but elegantly boomy rhythm: the interweave of voices is rapturously kaleidoscopic.  The movie theme Sweet Infatuation showcases the ensemble’s core mens’ and womens’ voices, bandleader Roopa Mahadevan alongside Kamini Dandapani, Vignesh Ravichandran, Janani Kannan, Preetha Raghu, Kalpana Gopalakrishnan, Shraddha Balasubramaniam and Shiv Subramaniam. They bolster a balmy, conversational duet between Subramanian and Mahadevan over airy violin and bubbly flute.

The ensemble sing the album’s most epic. majestically kinetic, unpredictably serpentine piece, Summer Love in unison, answered by dancing flute and violin in places. A Blue Note puts the strings of similarly innovative Indian trio Karavika front and center in an acerbically chromatic, moodily enveloping piece, the swooping, melismatic violin of Trina Basu anchored by Amali Premawardhana’s stark cello and Perry Wortman’s bass, taken upward by the choir’s resolute intensity. The album winds up with the playful Urban Gamak, Mahadevan and Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal riiffs over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Fans of Indian music will hear things they never heard before on this magical, energetic album; those whose taste in choral music gravitates toward adventurous composers like Arvo Part or Caroline Shaw should also check it out. And the group are amazing live.

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.

A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana and Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.

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.

Arun Ramamurthy Radically Reinvents Ragas

Although violinist Arun Ramamurthy has extensive training in Indian carnatic music, he’s also a jazz guy. He’s got a lively, intriguing, cross-pollinating new album, Jazz Carnatica,streaming at Bandcamp. It’s an attempt to radically reinvent ragas with his trio, Perry Wortman on bass and Sameer Gupta – leader of Indian jazz band Namaskar, who reinvent old Bollywood themes – on drums. What does this music sound like? Because all but one of the tracks are based on classic ragas, it’s Indian classical music first and foremost. But the rhythms are lithe and dancing and full of pulsing energy, and far more terse than the frequently expansive, slowly unwinding themes of sitar music. If you’ve got friends who might confide something like, “Sure, I like Indian music ok, but it’s so meeeelllllllloooooowwwwww…” play this the next time you see them and they’ll have a change of heart. The trio are playing the album release show on Nov 1 at 8 PM at at Greenwich House Music School, 46 Barrow St. in the West Village; cover is $15.

As much as Ramamurthy’s violin moves around, and it’s always in motion, even when he’s at his most energetic he doesn’t stray far from a central tone. That tension fuels a lot of understated mystery here. The opening track starts out surprisingly funky, with a catchy turnaround and a very cleverly implied two-chord (or two-mode, if you must) vamp. The elegant intro of the second number quickly gives way to a dancing but hypnotic theme, which the band vamps on – Wortman often doubles Ramamurthy’s lines, providing a staccato contrast to Ramamurthy’s lingering sustain.

Marc Cary – who also plays with Gupta in Namaskar – guests on the album’s three central tracks. The first also features another cross-pollinating violinist, Trina Basu – it’s the closest thing here to a psychedelically rustic, Ravi Shankar-style raga, but built around a riff that’s pure blues. The second has Cary adding a little calypso jazz flair and the most traditional jazz vernacular of the tracks here.

The next two tracks build out of moody atmospherics to more lively interplay. Likewise, the seventh track – the one Ramamurthy original, and the best of them all – expands outward from a broodingly chromatic tune to a bouncy bass solo. As the album goes along, Ramamurthy goes deeper into the microtones, his rather severe, intense tone contrasting with Wortman’s bubbly bass on the eight number here. The final one is the closest to the kind of modal jazz that Gupta plays in Namaskar, Ramamurthy choosing his spots. All of the tracks clock in at more than five minutes, sometimes considerably more. Onstage, they’ll probably take them out even further into more psychedelic territory. This is an album that will grab a lot of people: Indian music fans in search of a shot of adrenaline, and jazz fans who thrive on the space between the notes.