Jazz CD Reviews

Jonathan Mayer – Out of Genre – FHR AMJAD ALI KHAN, sarod: Samaagam – with Scottish Chamber Orch. cond. by David Murphy – World Village

Ingeniously Westernized music for sitar and sarod.

Published on May 14, 2011

Jonathan Mayer – Out of Genre – FHR
AMJAD ALI KHAN, sarod: Samaagam – with Scottish Chamber Orch. cond. by David Murphy – World Village

Jonathan Mayer – Out of Genre – FHR09 *****:

(Jonathan Mayer – sitar; Kenny Wheeler – trumpet, Flugelhorn; Bernard Wystraete – flute, bass flute; Mitel Purohit – tabla; Andy Bratt – drum samples)

AMJAD ALI KHAN, sarod: Samaagam – with Scottish Chamber Orch. cond. by David Murphy – World Village 468102 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Ravi Shankar and the Beatles led the way in bringing the East Indian sitar and sarod into Western music, but the effort continues with these two really interesting albums. I put them in the Jazz category because although the second involves a classical symphony orchestra, improvisation is at the basis of Indian music and it is also basic to American jazz.

Diversity is the touchstone of much music today; even the sitar itself evolved from the Persian tambur and the South Indian veena. Though steeped in tradition going back centuries, the sitar itself is only about 100 years old. The Bollywood music influence has opened new areas of the mix of Western and Indian music. Jonathan Mayer is the son of the late John Mayer, who created the Indo-Jazz Fusion albums, so you can see he doesn’t come by the Westernized sitar thing by accident. True, there have been some Western musicians who really didn’t get it with the sitar (especially in the 1960s), just as there are still some who don’t really get it with Brazilian music. But Mayer clearly knows what he is doing with the difficult instrument, and includes in his innovative work a vast variety of sources in addition to his own compositions.

There are three Bach selections on Out of Genre, which reminded me of Bela Fleck’s banjo explorations of that composer. And the list of instruments on the CD for Mayer is just as diverse as the music: in addition to plain sitar, there is pygmy sitar (uses the body of a bouzouki), electric sitar, tanpura, guitar-zither, piano, Fender Rhodes and other keyboards. There’s plenty of exotic work here with various non-Western scales and rhythmic structures, but it all works quite well with a strong jazz esthetic and doesn’t seem a gimmick.  And how many CD can boast liner notes by Dr. Kuljit Bhamra?

TrackList: Bach: Adagio, Mayer: Rag Jiddhu, String of Pearls, Joning, Bach: Gavotte & Rondeau, Wystraete: Abida, Mayer: Whole Again, Bach: Prelude No. 2 in c minor, Mayer: Capo-Lo, When It Rains.

Amjad Ali Khan has had a career of over half a century, elevating the sarod to one of the most popular North Indian instruments. Like Shankar, he has appeared in some of the most important concert halls around the world, and he has an extensive discography.  Last year he collaborated with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and conductor David Murphy in a live concert to give new form to the discipline and purity of Indian classical music.  The result was this music for solo sarod and string orchestra, which brings together Western and Indian music in new and exciting ways. The orchestra’s conductor  also has a close relationship with Indian music, one of his mentors having been Ravi Shankar. He has worked with several leading Indian musicians in world premieres, and enjoys bringing this fusion of Eastern and Western music to more listeners.

Samaagam is best translated as “flowing together,” and that is what the disparate musical cultures do here. The opening three selections are very short ragas played as solos by Khan. He was obviously keeping in mind the much shorter attention span of Western audiences. Tracks 4 thru 16, then, are the various short movements of the Samaagam concerto for sarod, concertante group, and strings which was written in 2008. They form themselves into three loose movements, of which the second is a medley of ragas. I found the first portion of movements interesting but not gripping; however, the last portion of the concerto – tracks 11 thru 16 – is most exciting and involving.  The final section, Bhairavi, is a ten-minute virtuoso conclusion that moves from one breathtaking raga-type improvisation to yet another even more spectacular.  

– John Sunier




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