Crown of the Universe: Taj Mahal, Vishwamohan Bhatt and N. Ravikaran

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My brother introduced me to Taj Mahal, the American blues guitarist, way back about 40 years or more ago. We all got a kick out of the fact that he had taken the name of India’s greatest icon even if we didn’t really ‘get’ the music he was playing.   Having grown up in India with very narrow music tastes, American roots/blues was a foreign country.

But it didn’t take long to understand that here was a great musician and I’ve been a huge fan of Taj’s ever since.  Like his old mate and one time Rising Son, Ry Cooder, Taj is somewhat of a musical explorer.  We may consider him to be essentially a man of the blues but he’s really interested in all the streams of  music that have contributed to the African American experience. Hence, he’s gone off to the Caribbean and explored calypso, slave songs and early American hill songs.

Among his most delightful albums are the ones like today’s share where he’s collaborated with non-American musicians. If you’ve not had a chance to hear his album done in partnership with the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar you are missing a rare beauty.  It is stunning.

This album, Mumtaz Mahal, was made several years before CMCZ (and just a couple after Ry Cooder‘s own Grammy-winning collaboration with Vishwamohan Bhatt) and is equally intriguing. And satisfying.

The pace and feel of this collaboration is laid back and informal. Taj is definitely the driving force. He has selected an excellent, varied set of songs from the Jamaican classic, Johnny Too Bad, to the gospel gem, Mary, Don’t You Weep to the blues standard Come On Into My Kitchen and he delivers them beautifully.  You feel as if you have been invited into a small room with just Taj and a couple friends to hear the master sing from his heart.  Each song is unhurried and intimate. Case in point the introduction to the final track. The singer and his accompanists, some of India’s finest, are clearly enjoying exploring the melodies and playing off each other.

Whereas his album with Cooder is orchestral in its conception and elegant beauty, on Mumtaz Mahal, Bhatt plays a more subtle role. He fills in the gaps and nudges each song along.  While Taj lets loose with his voice Bhatt brings in the East reverb that somehow fits perfectly into the atmosphere.

This is a slow burner. It’s not as blood rushingly good as Bhatt’s collaboration with Cooder but it is as nuanced and beautiful filling the listener with joy and wonder and delight.

 

I love it. Hope you do too.

Mumtaz Mahal

Track Listing:

01 Coming of the Mandinka

02 Come On In My Kitchen

03 Rolling On the Sea

04 Mary Don’t You Weep

05 Stand By Me

06 Johnny Too Bad

07 Curry and Quartertones

TAJ

 

 

Ragamala Vol. 7: Yaman/Kalyani

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This volume of variations on raga Yaman opens with a modern jazz-influenced rendition by the Neel Murgai Ensemble.  A New York based ‘chamber’ quartet led by sitarist Murgai, NME creates intricate, finely spiced musical atmospheres that draw on Indian classical, jazz, and gypsy music.

Also included is bansuri master Pannalal Ghosh‘s beloved Yaman, a couple of film songs from Umrao Jan Ada (1981) and Junglee (1961), Farida Khanum’s spectacular romantic ghazal Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah as well as interpretations in a Western classical and contemporary jazz setting.

Yaman, also known as Kalyani, is by Indian classical music standards a relatively un-ancient raga. It first emerged in the 16th century with some claiming it was a composition of Mian Tansen and that he based it upon a Persian structure known as ‘Ei Man’. In Pakistan and Afghanistan the raga is often referred to as Eeman (in many varied spellings) and I have concluded this collection with a wonderful Afghan take on the raga  by Ustad Mohammad Omar, the famous rubab player.

Yaman emerged from the parent musical style of Kalyan, itself a style of classical Carnatic musical tradition called thaat. Considered to be one of the most fundamental ragas in the Hindustani Classical tradition, it is thus often one of the first ragas taught to students. In the context of traditional standards of performance, Yaman ragas are considered suitable to play at any time of the day, but they are traditionally performed in the evening. (Wikipedia).

Given its close relationship to Carnatic music the centerpiece of this collection is a stunning live recital by South Indian/Sri Lankan violinist L. Subramaniam and shenai nawaz Ustad Bismillah Khan. Listen carefully to this piece and to the playfulness, mastery and virtuosity of both musicians as they play off each other. It delights and enshivers!

Rudresh Mahantappa‘s group Dakshina Ensemble which features South Indian saxophone innovator Kadri Gopalnath and Pakistani American guitar whiz Rez Abbasi also explores the Carnatic original in their massive track Kalyani.

I hope you enjoy this collection as much I do!

Yaman

Track Listing:

01 Evening In A_ Raga Yaman [Neel Murgai Ensemble]

02 Raga Yaman [Pannalal Ghosh]

03 Zindagi Jab Bhi [Talat Aziz]

04 Raga Yaman [L Subramaniam and Bismillah Khan]

05 Yaman Kalyan (Largo moderato)[ Zubin Mehta and Ravi Shankar]

06 Ehsan Tera Hoga Mujhpar [Mohmmad Rafi]

07 Raga Emen Kalyan [Pt. Pratap Narayan and Kankana Banerjee]

08 Kalyani [Rudresh Mahantappa and Dakshina Ensemble]

09 Woh Mujh Se Hoay Humkalam Allah Allah [Farida Khanum]

10 Shakal and naghma in the melodic mode of Emen (Yaman) [Ustad Mohammad Omar]

YAMAN

Sunday Best

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For several years now I have been privileged to write a weekly column for India’s premier online newspaper, Scroll.in. The column is called Sunday Sounds. I consider myself privileged for a couple of reasons:

  • I have been given a very wide and liberal brief. Essentially, I can write and share music of any genre, type, style or artist so long as it has some connection with South Asia.
  • As I’ve prepared for each week’s column I find myself researching and learning and discovering ever more about the incredible diversity and abundance of South Asian musical talent.
  • As a result of the column I’ve created a small following of fans many of whom are connected with the arts and culture communities of South Asia. In turn and through their good graces I’ve been able to begin other creative projects, such as writing books.

So to all the people at Scroll.in, especially its incredible editor Naresh Fernandes I say thank you.

There have been the more than 100 editions of Sunday Sounds thus far. To share my gratitude and joy I have put a small collection of just 25 tracks in a double ‘disc’ which I hope you will enjoy. If you’re already a fan of Sunday Sounds, you can look forward to more columns and fascinating music. If you’re a newbie, I hope you’ll log in to Scroll every Sunday and enjoy the stupendous and endlessly pleasing world of South Asian sangeet/musiqui.

This is diverse collection and reflects the Sunday Sounds mandate perfectly. You’ll discover South Indian rock fusion and fresh Pakistani qawwali. You’ll also find some English pop songs from the Beatles and Sam Roberts. Of course, there is quite a bit of South Asian folk music (one of my favourite genres), some ragas (both traditional and funked-up) and contributions from the South Asian diaspora in South and North America. In other words, quite a bit to keep a smile on your face for several hours!

Sunday sounds v1

Track Listing (pt. 1)

01 Panivizhum Malarvanam [Karthik and Bennet and Band]

02 Limbo Jazz [Wynton Marsalis and Sachal Ensemble]

03 Akhan cham cham wassiyan [Tina Sani]

04 NSA vs USA [Shahid Buttar]

05 Mustt Mustt [Brookly Qawwali Party]

06 Love, Love, Love [Shaukat Ali].

07 Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child/ Mai Ni [Madeleine Peyroux and Sachal Ensemble]

08 Hai Sharmaon Kis Kis Ko Bataon [Tabla for Two]

09 People Power in the Disco Hour [Clinton]

10 Jokerman [Divana]

11 Light My Fire [Ananda Shankar]

12 Dear Prudence [The Beatles]

 

V1

Track Listing (pt.2)

13 Sialkot [Sunny Jain Collective]

14 Idhar Zindagi ka Janaaza Uthega [Attaluah Khan Niazi]

15 Taj Mahal [Sam Roberts]

16 Raag Megh [Zohaib Hassan Khan]

17 Charkha [Ustad Ameer Ali Khan]

18 Blues For Yusef [Lionel Pillay]

19 Soul Raga [Abbas Mehrpouya]

20 Api Sanasille [Wayo]

21 Raat ke sapna (Raatein Sapna) [Ramdew Chaitoe]

22 Hippie Hindustani [Bonnie Remedios]

23 Hello madam disco [Nahid Akhtar]

24 Sri Jimi [Prasanna]

25 Mere Ghar Aaja [Blind Boy Raju]

V2

From India with Love: Miles Davis

Miles Davis

Miles Davis

I have been thinking in recent weeks of whether or not the time has come to shut down Washerman’s Dog and Harmonium blogs. I find it hard to carve out the time to share music and do the writing which I so enjoy. I’ve got a very busy working life plus write a weekly musical column for an Indian newspaper and am dedicating more time to photography

I do apologize for the irregularity of posts on both blogs but cannot promise that it will improve much in the coming weeks. The past month in particular has been crazy with a trip home to Oz and then 10 days here in KL with the family on a bit of a holiday. Before and after that family interlude I have been caught up in international emergency responses to two major natural disasters: the cyclone in Vanuatu (and other countries) and now, as of last week, the earthquake in Nepal.

Time for music blogging has evaporated.

But having preambled all this, I ironically find myself with an hour free. The house is clean, the laundry is doing its stuff in the back room and I’ve just finished a piece of toast and honey. I have burned the dal (my lunch for the next couple of days) and will soon toss it in the rubbish. How to fill this unexpected gift of time?

Referring back to the earthquake in Nepal, my column this week highlighted some very cool music from Nepal including the work of jazz keyboardist Louiz Banks. That got me thinking of his place in contemporary Indian music, which is hugely significant. He’s a big man and he is responsible, with a handful of others, of advancing the cause of jazz and fusion jazz among India’s musician community. Among his many kudos is a Grammy nomination for his work along side Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Gary Bartz and several others, including a number of outstanding Indian musicians in interpreting the work of Miles Davis.

The name of the album is Miles from India and here is what the AMG folks say about it.

It was such a simple concept. Producer Bob Belden (who has directed the Miles Davis reissue series) was talking with Times Square label owner Yusuf Gandhi about Miles‘ use of Indian instrumentation during The Complete On the Corner Sessions and wondered aloud what it would sound like if Indian musicians played Miles‘ music. Gandhi replied “Miles from India,” and nearly a year later Beldendelivered this brilliant set that not only features a number of India’s finest musicians but a veritable who’s who of Miles‘ own sidemen. In perhaps the boldest move, Belden and the musicians looked well beyond Miles‘ 1972-1975 sessions with Indian instruments for inspiration, performing tracks from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s (the same time span covered by Miles‘ associates on this album). Another fun thing about these performances is that some of Miles‘ sidemen play on songs they didn’t originally play on — like the opener, “Spanish Key,” featuring Mike Stern and Dave Liebman. But despite some additional Indian percussion and vocalizing, “Spanish Key” doesn’t vary much from the original. On the other hand, “All Blues” is completely transformed, with Ravi Chary‘s sitar taking the place of Miles‘ trumpet. The Gary Bartz/Rudresh Mahanthappa sax duet on this is a real treat, as are the presence and playing of Jimmy Cobb, who also played on the original 1959 Kind of Blue session. The fast version of “Ife” marks the entrance of monster bass player Michael Henderson and the wonderfully deranged guitar of Pete Cosey, who does not record nearly enough. After the lovely but relatively brief sarod-led “In a Silent Way,” it’s great to hear Cosey rip it up on “It’s About That Time.” He’s nearly matched in intensity by Bartz‘s sax and Kala Ramnath‘s violin while Henderson does his thing with that killer Dave Holland bassline. Stern gets to reprise his role on the classic “Jean Pierre,” paired with some great flute from Rakesh Chaurasia.

Chick Corea appears only on “So What,” but turns in a great piano solo with some tasty inside-the-piano work. Like “All Blues,” “So What” becomes something else again with the addition of a trio of Indian percussionists and a change in time signature. And while the bassline of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” doesn’t really lend itself to Henderson‘s signature propulsive style, the percussionists lock in with him, providing a platform for more sick playing from Cosey. “Blue in Green” has Wallace Roney‘s trumpet singing with Shankar Mahadevan‘s voice and then sarangi in another sublime transformation. Here, Mike Stern‘s solo is as gentle as the one on “Jean Pierre” was noisy. Henderson and drummerVince Wilburn kick it on “Great Expectations,” which segues briefly into the introspective “Orange Lady” and back. Chary and Roney both contribute excellent solos and Cosey goes nuts (why doesn’t he record more?). Fortunately, he gets plenty more space on the slow version of “Ife,” both soloing and comping. The rhythm section of Henderson and Badal Roy on tabla is completely hypnotic here, providing a perfect base for languid solos from Dave Liebman and Gary Bartz and some nice spacy sounds from Cosey and Adam Holzman. The album closes with the only track Miles didn’t record: “Miles from India,” penned by John McLaughlin for this set. Scored for voice, piano, guitar, and the electric mandolin of U. Srinivas, it’s a pensive and atmospheric track that nevertheless features some passionate soloing. And that’s merely touching on some of the highlights. Folks like Ron Carter,Marcus MillerNdugu Chancler, and Lenny White haven’t even been mentioned, let alone some of the great Indian musicians also present here.

The essence of jazz is improvisation and expression, and Miles always sought out highly individual players. The beauty of Miles from India is how the players from different cultures and backgrounds meet on Miles‘ turf with their individual voices completely intact. Miles from India is not only an amazing celebration of the music of Miles Davis, it’s also a tribute to the way Miles and Teo Macero changed the way jazz music can be made. Granted, it’s the musicians involved who turn in these scorching performances, but this album was recorded in Mumbai, India, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Saylorsburg, PA (!?), and would not have been possible without the studio techniquesMacero pioneered with Miles. Perhaps, like MaceroBob Belden will be remembered more for his production than his horn playing. Either way, with Miles from IndiaBelden has outdone himself and delivered a tribute that succeeds completely on every level. Kudos to all involved. (AMG)

Hope you enjoy this very nice record. In addition to focussing on some good and fresh music, this post is the very first ‘cross posting’ between the two blogs. Followers of both blogs I’m sure find much to enjoy here!

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Track Listing: V 1

1-01 Spanish Key [Mike Stern , Dave Leibman]

1-02 All Blues [Louis Banks, Ravi Chary, Rudresh Mahantappa]

1-03 Ife (Fast) [Michael Henderson, Pete Covey]

1-04 In A Silent Way [Brij Narain]

1-05 It’s About That Time [Kala Ramnath, Gary Bartz]

1-06 Jean Pierre [Mike Stern Rakesh Chaurasia]

V1

Track Listing: V2

2-01 So What [Louis Banks, Chick Corea]

2-02 Miles Runs The Voodoo Down [Michael Henderson, Lenny White and Sivamani and Vikku Vinayakram]

2-03 Blue In Green [Wallace Roney and Shankar Mahadevan]

2-04 Great Expectations [Marcus Miller, Ravi Chary and Wallace Roney]

2-05 Ife (Slow) [Gary Bartz, Badal Roy and Dave Liebman]

2-06 Miles From India [John McLaughlin and U. Srinivas]

V2

Carnatic with a (jazz) Cherry on Top: Ragabop Trio

George Brooks, Steve Smith, Prasanna   aka The Ragabop Trio

George Brooks, Steve Smith, Prasanna aka The Ragabop Trio

Raga Bop is a fun play on words; the perfect name for that long standing amalgam of American jazz and Hindustani classical music. One wonders why it took so long for someone to come up it.

The trio that sports the name is a collaborative effort of Prasanna, a south Indian guitarist, Steve Smith, a rock and roll drummer who once played with Journey and George Brooks, sax player, composer and band leader. Smith had played with the other two separately as a duo on various projects before hitting on the idea of combining their separate efforts into a trio that explores building jazz on top of a Carnatic music base.

Smith and Brooks had both been interested in and involved in mixing their musical visions with subcontinental music. Smith, though most famous as the drummer of a mega rock act, has been a devotee of Carnatic percussion for many years. Brooks a saxophonist and composer has in turn been a lover of Hindustani classical music which from time to time has influenced his performance and writing. Both men knew and had performed with Prasanna, probably the world’s greatest naval engineer cum guitarist! As all three individuals loved composing as much as playing, the prospect of working together was too exciting not to pursue. Recognizing that such a collaboration could be a hit or a big miss, they girded their loins and set out hoping for some magic.

What resulted is the album under the Harmonium bright lights this evening: Ragabop Trio. After many listens I must say this is a winner of an album. They didn’t miss at all. Rather they have hit pretty much as close to the bullseye as you can get. Prasanna’s guitar playing is for me the stand out delight of the album. Not only can he tickle the strings in that warm southern Carnatic way he can stroke and swing his instrument like a lover practicing all the moves of the kama sutra—teasing, gentle, cheeky and commanding.

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Smith’s drum work is the ever present strength throughout. With a sound and style that clearly counts Steve Gadd among his influences Smith is able to demonstrate an array of rhythms and affinity with complex beats that rivals Prasanna’s mastery on the guitar.

Perhaps I am being unfair but even though Brooks does pull off some wondrous sounds that are not too distant from a Madurai temple at festival time, I feel as if his playing is mostly uninspired. Almost superfluous. At worst the sax grates (but luckily there are very few ‘worst’ moments).

Still, don’t let that get you down. The Ragabop Trio not only have coined a stellar name for their combo, they’ve delivered a really enjoyable record. The Sanskrit-scatting is a thick icing on the cake!

Raga Bop Trio

Track Listing:

01 Tug Of War

02 Miss Oma

03 Love And Hunger

04 Ironically

05 Garuda

06 The Geometry Of Rap

07 Moonlanding

08 Dubai Dance

09 Katyayini

Raga