As I wrote in my concert review of Ned Rothenberg's Symc back in March (www.jazzreview.com/article/review-4663.html): "Jazz/Indian fusion is by no means a new genre, the earliest example was John Meyer's Indo-Jazz Fusion with Joe Harriot, from Great Britain in 1967. Since then, John McLaughlin's Shakti went a long way to popularize the genre, blending his guitar work with Indian artists such as violinist Shankar, flutist Hariprasad Chaurasia, and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, among others. Percussionist Trilok Gurtu has done a lot of work in this area, as has an Italian group called Tihai, and the record label Water Lilly Acoustics has recorded a number of albums pairing Indian players, both Northern and Southern, with jazz artists, such as the collaboration between American flutist James Newton and Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath." I should also have mentioned altoist Charlie Mariano, guitarist Larry Coryell and flutists Bud Shank, and Paul Horn, not to mention artists such as John and Alice Coltrane and Eric Dolphy who claimed to have studied Indian music. I have also recently reviewed Charles Lloyd's group Samgam with tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain who has been active with several such projects, including recordings with Brooks.
I have followed this genre very closely and worked in it myself. Yet, as I indicated above, for the most part I remain ambivalent about it. The issue lies in the way jazz and Indian music relate to each other. Given the nature of Indian instruments, which do not modulate, plus the power of the centuries-old Hindustani and Carnatic traditions compared to the still emerging jazz genre, most collaborations between Indian and jazz artists find the Indians with home field advantage; the jazz players have to adapt to them rather than the other way around. This frequently results in quasi-Indian forms, modal mainly, with complex rhythmic cycles borrowed from Indian drumming traditions. This can make for some interesting music but, for me, while jazz gains, Indian music loses. An essential component of this music, especially the Hindustani tradition from northern India, is the conveying of delicate levels of feeling through the subtle manipulation of tones and intervals, particularly in the unaccompanied, rubato opening section of a raga known as alap. With Western instruments incapable of the required nuances, Indo-jazz fusion tends to omit this section and get straight to the rhythm cycles. It may be exciting, but a great deal of subtlety is lost.
All of this was in evidence during this particular performance. The evening began with Pandit Chaurasia in a thirty-minute performance of raga Saraswati in pure Hindustani style, beginning with alap and then introducing Vijay Ghate on tabla for a series of fixed compositions and improvisations over two or three different rhythm cycles. Chaurasia has lost none of his mastery and the performance was exquisite, especially as this raga is not frequently heard. As a flutist, and one who has studied the bansuri myself in India under the guidance of Hariprasad, I am still astonished by the range of expression that can be drawn from this simple, keyless, bamboo tube.
The next part of the program was devoted to Brooks and his group, omitting Chaurasia but including both Ghate on tabla and Steve Smith on drums. By any standard of jazz performance it was a fine display of virtuosity and imagination. Brooks, in particularly, is a fine player on both his horns. After the earlier performance, however, it seemed a little heavy handed, and certainly too loud. The Indian music lovers, who made up the majority of the audience, were a little overwhelmed by the volume and made uncomfortable by the chromaticism, especially from Haque's guitar work. It was mainly a question of contrast; I like a bowl of hot chili but it's a bit of a shock to the system after an hors-d'oeuvre of, say, delicately spiced vegetables. In addition, however, the group was joined by Kaveri Agashe who attempted to adapt some of the movements of classic Kathak dance to the spirit of the band's performance. This, I have to say, did not work at all. There was no chance for the dance to tell a story or express a mood as Kathak normally does, and Agashe, even though she worked hard and looked like an accomplished performer, was out of sync with the music and left high and dry for long passages.
After the intermission Pandit Chaurasia joined with Brooks and Summit for a piece which hovered between their two genres. Brooks was able to match the bansuri's phrasing more than the others, especially on soprano. By contrast, for long stretches before they made their solo statements, Haque and Eckhardt were entirely redundant. The drumming, which suited the saxophone, was too loud for the flute.
Speaking with me a few days later, Pandit Chaurasia was very generous toward his collaborators in this project. They are very keen on understanding Indian music, he said, so he tries to give them as much encouragement as possible. He did gently concede, however, that they sometimes get "a little carried away."
Pandit Chaurasia's generosity of spirit is as great as his musical artistry. It is hard to know what he gains musically from the relationship. Like the majority of the audience, I enjoyed the jazz but was left feeling how great an evening it could have been if it had been devoted solely to this great master of the bamboo flute.
Personnel: Hariprasad Charasia - bansuri (bamboo flute); George Brooks - soprano & tenor saxophone; Fareed Haque - guitar; Kai Eckhardt - electric bass; Steve Smith - drums; Vijay Ghate - tabla drums; Kaveri Agashe - Kathak Dance
For more information go to: www.hariprasadchaurasia.com or www.georgebrooks.com