Exactly a year to the date, Indian tabla master Sandip Burman returned to Milwaukee’s Shank Hall with a new version of his East Meets Jazz
group. Last year’s tour (cut short by the events of 9/11) featured a blistering all-star 6-piece ensemble. They navigated the twists and turns of Burman’s Indian music, creating a true fusion of genres. This year, he is taking a scaled down trio of himself, saxophonist Dave Pietro, and guitarist Paul Bollenback on a 40 date jaunt across the country.
The new trio is a tight group that delivers an often delicate sound. Last year’s band sometimes overshadowed the tablas with electric bass and drums. The more transparent and acoustic nature of the trio allows the tabla drums to be heard. The evening started out with both sax and guitar playing long, ethereal tones. Burman entered and the pace picked up. The three traded off breaks, with Burman conducting by nodding his head. His fingers were often a blur as they moved across the drum heads. The intensity level rose as all three players traded a whirlwind of notes. Then Bollenback started comping on electric guitar, sounding a bit like John McLaughlin. Pietro came in with a blistering sax solo. At times the trio sounds like McLaughlin’s Shakti
group, but they have their own identity. Burman sits in the middle, releasing torrents of notes from his drums. He breaks easily into a wide grin as the music locks together. The trio format suits him, as the nuances of the tabla are revealed. The music breathes and is more flexible and freewheeling. The musicians keep close eye contact and are able to shift meters and modes at the blink of an eye.
The second tune is Phoenix
by Pietro. This again starts out gently with Bollenback playing arpeggiated lines on his nylon string guitar. Pietro blows almost mournful lines on his sax. The Indian flavor is enhanced by him using a rare "F" mezzo sax. "I just picked this up," he explained after the concert. "Conn only made a few hundred of them around 1927-28. It’s between an alto and a soprano sax. I like it because it gets sort of that nasally tone of the soprano, which ads to the Indian sound of the music." The music then shifts to unison guitar and sax with a slower tabla rhythm. When Bollenback solos, Pietro takes up the accompaniment playing long, dronish tones. All three musicians trade rhythmic and melodic roles.
Going to a Burman performance is also part instructional, as he explains many of the intricacies of Indian music. "In this music," he says, "there is no harmony. There is the raga
- the melodic structure, and the tala
- the rhythmic structure. The tabla usually plays in duo with the sitar, a flute, or the sarrod. So there is no harmony like in Western music. I am learning a lot about harmony from both Dave and Paul, and we introduce some into the music." The trio is a learning experience for all, as Bollenback relates, "Sandip really knows the music, it’s a real growth curve for me. I’ve been working a lot with (drummer) Jeff "Tain" Watts, and I had to give up some of his gigs to do this tour. But he was cool about it saying. ‘You’ll bring some stuff back to this band.’"
Part of this learning experience is demonstrated in the third song, which is an interpretation of a Bach piece in six. The guitar plays the melody line with chattering tabla rhythms behind it, while the sax takes the bass part, playing long, low tones. Pietro then breaks out into a solo punctuated by Sandip. They lock into a long rhythmic phrase that moves at breakneck speed. Burman then solos, showing a great sense of melody by drawing varied tones from his drums. In the trio setting, the tabla takes a much more melodic role, often taking a piano like part with one hand playing the "chords," while the other plays the "melody."
The fourth song, as Sandip explains, is in 5 1/4 meter. Again, we are given a short discourse on Indian music. At one point Sandip has the audience clapping as he explains the rhythm. The guitar starts the piece playing a single note line. Bollenback bends the notes, adding to the Indian/Oriental flavor. There is very little harmony as he keeps a bass drone on one string behind the lead line. He demonstrates an immense technical ability on guitar, easily moving up and down the fret board. The guitar and sax then play different lead lines against the tabla rhythm. They break into a unison line as Sandip solos. With a broad grin, he again shows his amazing command of the drums. There is an almost hypnotic quality to his playing as his hands are a blur of motion, looking like hummingbird wings dancing on the drum heads.
The next song is another surprise as they play a Latin motuno
. Burman plays a rather funky, almost bossa nova style beat underneath things. The song is beautiful and brings up thoughts of Jobim and Brazil. For their last piece, Burman explains that he had worked with Danny Elfman on the soundtrack to the movie "Mars Attacks." It was there that he first heard the old TV theme, "Mission Impossible," which is in five. Taking a liking to it, he decided to come up with his own version which he put into 8 1/2 meter. The rapt audience was willing to open up to the rhythmic complexities of the music and sat there mesmerized by it. Burman conducted the tricky meter changes, pointing at Paul or Dave to come in for their solo breaks. The diminutive tabla master flung himself into another solo, hair flying and hands moving like a dervish. And then it was over. Two hours had passed by as each song had ebbed and flowed like an extended journey. It was two hours well spent. This was the first gig of the tour, so check out their itinerary at www.sandipburman.com and catch them in a town near you.