Prasanna already has a solid reputation for introducing the electric guitar to the world of traditional Carnatic music with a series of exceptional releases including the stunningly beautiful Natabhairavi. Like fellow countryman U. Srinivas, who experiments with that form as a member of John McLaughlin’s ground-breaking Remember Shakti, Prasanna has a clear understanding of the roots of this ancient Indian style. But what sets Prasanna apart from Srinivas who, with his fretless mandolin executes the wide note bends that are inherent in the style, Prasanna does the same thing with an unmodified guitar. The control that is required to do this on a fretted instrument is impressive, and Prasanna extends that level of control to the many other styles of music he tackles.
A Magna-Cum-Laude graduate of the Berklee School of Music, recipient of their Composition Achievement Award for outstanding work as a classical composer, and the Guitar Achievement Award for outstanding work as a jazz guitarist, Prasanna is clearly an artist with a broad understanding and even deeper ability to interpret. With Be the Change he demonstrates some of this stylistic breadth.
Opening with the Zawinul-esque "Pangea Rising," the tune alternates between an African Highlife feel and a more straight-ahead fusion feel, varying the texture even further by contributing an acoustic guitar solo that blends Carnatic style with a more Western approach. On "Ta ka ta ki ta Blues" Prasanna, again, deftly explores the juncture between East and West, this time with a burning electric solo; Like the first track, Prasanna demonstrates a stylistic disposition for shifting feels, this time alternating between greasy funk and a taste of swing. Such shifts can sometimes be jarring, but in the hands of Prasanna they all make perfect sense. Other tracks, including the closing "Kalyani Connection," are more relaxed, with a lightly funky groove that features fine acoustic solos from Prasanna and pianist Suzuki.
Prasanna has chosen two different working groups for this CD. Half the tunes are with bassist Victor Wooten and reed multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin, both from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and drummer Derico Watson; the other half feature bassist Alphonso Johnson, drummer Ralph Humphries and reed multi-instrumentalist/pianist Andy Suzuki. The Wooten/Watson rhythm section is a little more assertive, with Wooten’s signature fat sound driving the tunes he is on more vigorously; it is, however, great to hear Alphonso Johnson again; he demonstrates the same nimble style and bouncing funk that made him such a valued member of Weather Report in the 1970s.
But while the rhythm sections help to define the overall sound this is clearly Prasanna’s show. Building layers of electric and acoustic guitars, with a solid understanding of a multitude of styles he creates world music with a distinctive sound. Much like Pat Metheny, who merges the folk music of his Midwestern-US upbringing with a stronger jazz sensibility, Prasanna does similar things with his native South Indian roots. Also, like Metheny, Prasanna is less interested in songs where the theme is simply a way to get into improvisation; his pieces have a stronger sense of composition, each one telling a story. Be the Change is a fine new release from an artist who truly understands the concept that fusion, rather than being the dirty word it has become, is truly about integrating seemingly disparate styles of music into a new whole.