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« A more powerful way of naming names (phi-to-the-large-power D) | Main | Defeat and Victory (Joe) »

June 30, 2009


My take on listening to the excerpt entitled 'Ganesha' on the MySpace page (sorry, couldn't find a way to embed it):

Rudresh's playing (alto sax) is surprisingly fresh. He's not so immersed in the Carnatic music part that he comes off sounding too staid and traditional, like Kadri Gopalnath's extremely traditional rendering of the raga Naattai, which comes through in between. His playing hints at the raga and then veers off into more jazzy riffs, which make complete sense in the jazz context- even if it not as true to the original as Kadri's playing. Violinist A. Kanyakumari is simply put, quite amazing. She was always one of the staid accompanists with clean but not very spectacular 'manodharma', whenever she accompanied vocalists in concert, that I recall. In this piece, she comes in for a brief burst of sharp almost raspy but purely carnatic 'kalpanaswarams', which show how to mould Carnatic music into a jazzier take, better than Kadri, I think.

I don't know about 'momentous achievement, blah blah blah', but maybe 'fascinating' isn't too far off the mark, though I am coming at it from a different cultural and ear-training perspective than Giddins. (How do we know that 'fascinating' isn't a code-word for 'mystifying- I have no clue about this segment' ;)

Spin almost any recording on Pi at random, say this track from Henry Threadgill, and the results are likely to strike one as momentous. I'm a fan of Carnatic recitals, although my familiarity with the musical tradition is only passing. I know it when I hear it, but I'm not at all steeped in the canon. I thought Indian classical music, including South Indian, had long ago assimilated Western instrumentation: mandolin, saxophone, violin, etc. So I'm not sure the formula here is novel. The sound of Kinsmen is redolent of fusion, invoking less a future of jazz than a fresh revival of its '70s and '80s stylistic mash-ups (avant la lettre). But I'm pleased to have been introduced to this work.

Thanks Sujatha and Dean, for these very thoughtful responses. I just bought the album about a week ago, and am still formulating my view of it, so welcome these astute comments.

I will definitely pay attention to Kanyakumari -- and I agree with Sujatha's point that Rudresh is a lot more loose in comparison with the formal Gopalnath.

And as for "fusion," Dean, I agree with you -- but don't tell Rudresh. He says that he considers that to be "the f-word."

T.J.S.George in "MS : A Life in Music" claims that the violin was introduced into Carnatic music in the early 1800s by Baluswami Deekshitar at the instance of his famous brother Muthuswami. George credits Muthuswami Deekshitar with "the first excursion into fusion music" with an attempt "to set Sanskrit lines to English tunes"; "in more recent years ... A.K.C.Natarajan of Madurai has adapted the clarionet [as it is invariably called in India], Kamalai Thiagarajan the concert flute with keys, Kadri Gopalnath the saxophone, and U.Srinivas the mandolin to the exacting demands of Carnatic ragas." No fusion here, but adaptation.

Having listened to samples of Gopalnath's playing I don't hear much of the typical sax sound. He plays in a register one commonly associates with a nadaswaram. Giddins may not be familiar with the nadaswaram, a mainstay of Hindu temple and wedding music of the South; he cites the shehnai instead, a North Indian instrument with a far less robust sound and no low-frequency overtones. Saxophonist Charlie Mariano recorded some tracks with a nadaswaram thirty-some years ago. The shehnai would be as out of place in post Be-Bop Jazz as a clarinet.

Fusion music has a long history, but to what end? In attempts to establish common ground between the music of two cultures, the results seem exciting at first, followed quickly by consignment to the cut-out bin. Blending inevitably entails a simplification of well developed musical forms, with a loss of nuance, variety and the possibility of extensions; the farther apart the cultures, the more short-lived the outcome. Bossa-Jazz sounded exciting in the sixties, but has left a dubious legacy, and a bad taste in the mouth in certain quarters. Shakti was an exciting development too, but hardly trend-setting. Their arrangements may have had a Western whiff, but McLaughlin wasn’t playing Jazz, I heard Carnatic all the way.

Mahanthappa & Iyer are excellent musicians with critical recognition seldom before accorded to ‘foreigners’ who are neither white nor black (Sadao Watanabe comes to mind). But will they be long remembered here as pioneers of a new species? The leaps in the evolution of Jazz (as with Carnatic music) happened in special epochs and places, and were the outcome of movements that involved many like-minded and innovative musicians from a cohesive culture. I’m afraid these are not times conducive to Jazz experimentation, and innovation is becoming much much harder; nor are we likely to see a host of musicians dedicated to this new bi-cultural flavor.

Nor the place. Could it be that Mahanthappa & Iyer are doing their thing on the wrong continent? There is the example of Bossa Nova which evolved through absorption of Jazz elements into Brazilian urbane balladry and has been nursed for a half century on native soil. (Brazilians are second to none in absorbing foreign influences with not a chance of anyone interpreting the result as anything but Brazilian music – you name it, they’ve appropriated it seamlessly). Attempts at exploiting Bossa Nova in reverse by Jazz musicians did not succeed in the same way because American appreciation of the other culture has been nominal, patronizing even : Brazilian music == Bossa Nova, for example. Perhaps Indians view Jazz through a similar lens.

A famous song “Chiclete com Banana” (check it out on YouTube, sung by Jackson do Pandeiro, with video snippets of Dubya playing a percussion instrument) complains of this imbalance : “I’ll only put Be-Bop into my Samba / When Uncle Sam plays the tamborim / When he picks up the pandeiro and the zabumba / When he understands that the Samba is not Rumba / … I’ll mix Miami with Copacabana / Chiclets I’ll mix with Banana / And my samba will sound like this … / But in recompense I want to see / The Boogie-Woogie done to pandeiro and guitar / I want to see Uncle Sam beat the frying-pan / To Brazilian rhythms.” It’s Uncle Sam (the people, not the government) whose involvement is crucial, not just a coterie of well-meaning enthusiasts. Indo-Jazz might fare better in India from the craze for phoren among the middle class and elites, and from a possibly less insular awareness of the two musical cultures. As for its chances here, I don’t set much store by Jazz writers’ prognostications. One of these days I’m going to write a credible review of a fictitious album entirely by cutting and pasting sentences from real reviews – effusion, hyperbole, abstractions, jargon, name-drops … the works.

On the other hand, India (Indians?) has never been welcoming of difficult music. Jazz appreciation in India, enabled by radio, was personality driven, going from Armstrong, to Ellington, to Sinatra, to Ella, to MJQ, to Brubeck, with nary a nod to Be-Bop – I first became aware of that sea change in the US in ’69, two decades after the fact. In subsequent years the music came to map for me the changing fortunes of Black America. The Indian music I heard, learnt or appreciated while growing up was classical-devotional (Carnatic), classical-formal (Hindustani), and abysmally palliative (Hindi/Urdu filmi and Western pop) - much with poetry and finesse, but with little social or political significance to a nation emerging from subservience and mired in poverty and inequities (I am willing to stand corrected on this assessment). Judging from the Kinsmen samples, I foresee excellent musicians wasting their talents on cobbling together a patchwork that may not stand the test of time, or merit the label ‘fusion’. They will have my admiration for trying though.

PS : Improbable as it may seem, Uncle Sam (the government, not the people) has been responsible for the dissemination and promotion of Jazz throughout the rest of the world, from the 50s to the 90s. In that period the US saw many cycles of development and morbidity of the music which was for the most part ignored or denigrated as low-culture on home turf, the musicians abominally treated. I invite disbelievers to check out ‘Willis Conover’ on the Internet. But for Willis and the rest of the world, Jazz, for all its intrinsic worth, would have been restricted to the US and Western Europe, not the world-wide phenomenon it is today.

The variety of fusion that came to my mind was not the sort sometimes absurdly deemed "world music," but the stuff conventionally associated with Bitches Brew-era Miles and beyond, jazz and rock, fused electrically. McLaughlin is an important proponent, but I had Birds of Fire in mind, rather than Shakti. It's easy to mock the muscle-flexing virtuosity of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and the like, but after leaving them off my playlists for a couple decades, I'm back to enjoying them. No f-word for me, these guys. Then there's the tradition just this side of "new age," namely, folks like Oregon.

Good music review periodicals are hard to come by. (Although I admire much of the material they cover, I can't bear to read more than a paragraph or two of any issue of the UK glossy The Wire, for instance.) I've subscribed to Cadence for several years. The reviews are compact, most of the reviewers are knowledgeable, and their tastes range widely. Cadence is for "creative improvised music" what Fanfare is for "serious record collectors" of classical material: a reliable, usually well-written account of advances and declines in the quality of the product. But I'd love to see Narayan's proposed exquisite corpse of excerpts culled from the mainstream blowhards.

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