India’s love affair with jazz (and vice versa) began early – and keeps on blossoming. There is hardly a Western instrument that Indian musicians have not adapted and adopted into the Hindustani or Carnatic orchestras.
In more recent times, musicians from the subcontinent and the diaspora have found in jazz a music and philosophy that seems particularly attuned to their South Asian souls. Sunday Sounds has previously highlighted this fascinating community of "desi" jazz musicians that is making waves not just in India but in North America and Europe as well.
This week we showcase the work of four South Asian master musicians who swim in the boundless jazz ocean. All have recently released exciting new albums that sound and feel different from each other. One is vehemently intense. Another cerebral. The third is well travelled and cosmopolitan, while the last vibrates and rocks.
Springtime in New York
This track has been compared by AR Rahman to the pleasure of enjoying a masala dosa in Central Park, New York. While I’m not sure what specific qualities he was referring to, Springtime in New York certainly does satisfy.
Prasanna’s bewitching dexterity combines with blistering speed to open his new album, All Terrain Guitar, released earlier this month. So urgent is his playing, it causes an involuntary drawing in of breath. The guitar moves along in high gear, rising and falling, only to climb again, for nearly a minute before slowing to a virtual amble. The fiery picking of the rock god is left behind for a sound that is more usually found in a South Indian temples. Of course, things take off again and rush toward a desperate but exhilarating conclusion.
The moment you finally "get" Coltrane is when you tune into the unalloyed intensity of his blowing. There are shades of that feeling in this track as well. Prasanna is a hugely talented guitar player, comfortable in almost any musical setting. Whether it is rock, blues, Carnatic or jazz, his playing never ceases to amaze. And in this piece, and indeed, throughout All Terrain Guitar, he brings a Coltrane-esque fervour that sends shivers down the spine.
Tarun Balani Collective
Indian-American Vijay Iyer, arguably the most respected jazz pianist of the current period, plays on Prasanna’s new album. And Tarun Balani, the drummer from Delhi, has channeled a big chunk of Iyer’s sophisticated spirit, for the composition of the title track of his new album, Dharma, set for release in September.
Balani creates a moody atmosphere in this piece which seems to reflect his inner world. Recently married, he has confessed to feeling happy of late. But also saddened by the death of his grandmother. The entire album is conceived as a musical expression of deep human emotions.
The Balani Collective features two other South Asian jazz wallahs – guitarist Alex Pinto and pianist Sharik Hasan, whose contributions to the piece are tasteful and polished. Balani, with his complex and ambitious vision, will be one to watch in the coming years.
Sanjay Divecha and Secret
A gentle Africa-derived vocal line dominates this lovely piece by guitarist Sanjay Divecha and his group Secret. Indeed, with rhythms and instruments such as the mbira (thumb piano) from central Africa, Secret conjure a pleasing South African vibe.
While vocalists Chandana Bala and Raman Mahadevan are hypnotising, it is Divecha’s work on the guitar that is especially interesting. With a picking style reminiscent of Zimbabwean Louis Mhlanga or South Africa’s Vusi Mahlasela, Divecha leads the building of this piece confidently but unobtrusively from the side.
Calling his music world-fusion, Divecha’s new self-titled album, released earlier this month, is a summation of the guitarist’s many global influences. Taken as a whole the album is pure listening pleasure, full of creative interpretations and tributes to heroes such as Fela Kuti. Get on over to your favourite digital store and buy your copy!
Rez Abbasi & Junction
Like Prasanna, Rez Abbasi is a highly-rated South Asian jazz guitarist whose every album seems to explore yet another area of influence. With his new bass-less group Junction and a new album called Behind the Vibration, (released in May) Abbasi pays tribute to that oft-maligned genre, jazz/rock.
On Uncommon Sense, Abbasi displays just what a master of his instrument he is. And why his reputation as one of jazz’s most "restless", adventurous guitarists continues to grow. By turns light and spacey, then heaviness unbound, Rez’s guitar is at the centre of each stage of this track. At its core, this piece is like a preamble to an earthquake. It rumbles the ground, under your feet.
Though he proclaims many mentors and influences, in this album Abassi’s own scintillating voice is clear and distinct.
Each of these artists and each of these brilliant albums need to be in the collection of all jazz lovers, especially those resident in South Asia. In an age of cheap celebrity and formulaic music, this is the sort of stuff that makes nations proud.