Indo-Jazz Fusion is an experiment that has steadily refused to lie down and die for well over forty years now. It indubitably reached its peak so far in the work of the late Charlie Mariano with Carnatic music, who came closest to a true hybrid. Another memorable effort was the 1980s collaboration between the late jazz violin supremo Stephane Grappelli and Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. However, this latter effort was particularly memorable also for Grappelli's dancing great big rings around Subramaniam, and the latter's lack of any kind of real grasp of jazz and his characteristic seemingly endless repetitiveness.
And this brings us to the connection with last night's Mumbai Jazz effort.
Larry Coryell, the godfather of jazz-rock fusion and still one of the greatest jazz guitarists of our time and indeed one of the great 'guitar gods,' and the star of Mumbai Jazz, also collaborated with L. Subramaniam in the past. Together with Hubert Laws, Tony Williams, Maynard Ferguson and other well-known jazzers, he was perhaps the saving grace of Indian Express / Mani And Co. Coryell has also worked with Zakir Hussain (of Shakti/Remember Shakti renown), and so is certainly no stranger to the concept of Indo-Jazz fusion.
One of the greatest jazz flautists, the aforementioned Hubert Laws was originally billed to be part of Mumbai Jazz, but was replaced by American-Dutch flautist and composer Ned McGowan without any explanation.
McGowan also is no stranger to the music of India and has performed with numerous leading Indian violinists. He also leads the Karnatic Lab Foundation in Amsterdam and lectures on the Carnatic Practices course at the Conservatory of Utrecht in The Netherlands. As a composer, he premiered his Concerto for Contrabass Flute and Orchestra with the American Composers Orchestra at New York's Carnegie Hall in 2008.
Ronu Majumdar is considered one of today's foremost bansuri exponents of India. He first studied the instrument under his father, Dr Bhanu Majumdar, himself a former disciple of the legendary Pannalal Ghosh. Ghosh was the bansuri player who first fully realised the full potential of the bansuri to imitate the human voice with all its rich ornamentation and to bring full recognition to the bansuri as an instrument of Hindustani classical music. His successor in the late 1960s and 70s was considered by many to have been his disciple the late Shri Gour Goswami, who died tragically young on the eve of his fiftieth birthday in 1976.
Majumdar has worked with, among others, Ry Cooder and George Harrison.
Rajesh Rajbhatt is considered on of India's leading pakhawaj players today but is equally at home with other Indian as well as Latin and African percussion instruments. He has collaborated with Majumdar for some time now. The pakhawaj is a double-headed drum that is normally associated with the august dhrupad style of Hindustani classical music. Known as the mrdangam in Carnatic music, the pakhawaj is the ancestor of the more popular tabla.
So altogether certainly a very promising and interesting line-up. Not to mention, also a rare chance to see and hear McGowan's unique monster of a contrabass flute!
Mumbai Jazz was introduced by British clarinettist/Indo-Jazz rising star Arun Ghosh. (One can't help feeling a twinge of regret that he wasn't an active participant! Alas, we shall forever be left wondering what his contribution might have been.)
And so, at last, the four musicians took their places, Coryell seated on a chair, Rajbhatt and Majumdar seated on a dais in the centre, and McGowan standing. Let the musical fireworks begin!
Musical fireworks is certainly what Mumbai Jazz delivered right from the outset. Opening with a vivacious Larry Coryell composition, with Ned McGowan on piccolo here, the quartet set a very lively pace that seemed to get ever more exuberant as the evening progressed.
Exuberance clearly was the dominant mood of the whole evening. Ronu Majumdar frequently switched between a 'regular' bansuri and various non-standard sized ones. The latter ranged from a piccolo sized one to what Majumdar called his 'contrabass bansuri' - somewhere between alto and bass flute. Majumdar claimed this as his own invention, however I am sure to have seen Shri Gour Goswami play a similar sized instrument way back in the day.
A memorable composition also was one by Majumdar based on Rag Ahir Bhairav, another based on Rag Jogh titled Jogh Jazz. Humorous banter between Coryell and Majumdar about the title preceded the latter.
Breathtakingly virtuosic performances were given by all four of the musicians throughout. However, the real show-stopper had to be the closer of the first set. Now Ravel's Bolero and guitar are not two terms that one would normally think of together. But Larry Coryell's 'Derangement of Bolero' as he jokingly referred to it was a guitar solo straight out of guitar heaven that was mind-blowing as well as unforgettable. Worth the price of admission by itself, easily.
The sheer virtuosity of Ronu Majumdar was truly impressive and breathtaking. However, with his very extensive use of western flute technique, one was sometimes left wondering where the unique mellow, sweet sound of the bansuri was. For all intents and purposes, Majumdar might perhaps just as well have been playing the standard concert flute, piccolo, and alto and bass flutes, one couldn't escape feeling.
Throughout, Rajesh Rajbhatt's pakhawaj was not only breathtaking but also highly inventive.
When playing the concert flute, Ned McGowan often somehow reminded of Herbie Mann, in appearance, stance and demeanour. McGowan's virtuosity matched the other players' every step of the way. His contrabass flute, earlier used more for effect than anything, finally came into its own towards the end of the second set, and very impressive it was too. The technical difficulties in playing this monster of an instrument can barely be imagined and must be a great deal more demanding than even the bass flute, which presents numerous problems to the performer as well.
As for Larry Coryell, well, he's Larry Coryell, what do you expect? One of the all-time guitar greats on top form and obviously having a good time. Coryell's a force of nature.
Overall, this was a most exhilarating performance all round. As for the music itself, it certainly came a lot closer to a true hybrid than many if not most similar efforts. As such, it was highly enjoyable and indeed a delight.
Moreover, one got the very clear impression that both Indian musicians and jazzers had a firm grasp of one another's music. That, in many respects, was perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this fabulous event.
An album was promised as forthcoming in due course, and should be something to very much look forward to.
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