Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Review: Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet plus Arun Ghosh, Purcell Room, Sunday 16th November, 2008...

To the final night of my attendance... Having spent the afternoon at the Tate I was already knackered so in need of an energy uplift. Which the support band duly gave... Ironically, I was sat next to a lady and her family who informed me that she was Arun Ghosh's aunt and that what we were about to receive we would truly dig. Well – she was right. I wasn't sure I would take to this band – especially after the previous night (and other previous nights down the years re support bands at the LJF). But Arun bounded onstage, an absurdly youthful dude, energy crackling from him – and enthusiasm. Seemingly unabashed by the audience, his patter alone would win him plaudits. Setting off the first number (and all subsequent ones) with a miked up drone box that gave the root note, the band stormed off in fine form. Fronting on clarinet, he displayed a powerful, warm tone and fluid technique. Yet: everything played from the heart. I've never been a fan of Indo-Jazz fusion stuff but his performance made me reconsider some of my prejudices. What further enhanced the performance was the inclusion of Corey Mwamba on vibes who covered a wide range of dynamics from hard mallet hitting to bowed metallic shivers and subtle striking of the keys with his fingertips, splashes of warm rain across a sultry lagoon, fancifully. He was obviously at home in Ghosh's music – where youthful contemporary sass and swagger is tempered by the organic links to Ghosh's Asian roots. One criticism – and a very minor one, because I enjoyed his performance very much – the setting of the drone for each piece was a little formulaic, perhaps. Yet: one has to enter this world with open ears – it partakes of both jazz and Indian musics and the latter's framing devices and cycling figures created - via electric bass, drums and tabla - a large enough space for the solo instruments to move through without constricting the flow. And: this guy is still young. I feel he can open up his unique fusions further yet... certain sections where the trap drums and the tabla emerged from lockstep into freer areas of interplay suggest the potential for that expansion.

In the ongoing sagas of the road and the nightmares encountered thereon, perhaps Rudresh Mahanthappa and his band's story of travel to the gig was not the worst of its kind – just a general reflection on what jazz musicians have to undergo. Apparently they had started from Germany at 5.30 that morning and had not long arrived, after several trains and planes etc. But it makes it more of a triumph to overcome that exhaustion, especially at the end of a tour, and to turn up and play at this level. I don't know his music at all, but I've heard his piano player on record – Vijay Iyer - and he did not disappoint. Again, jazz mixed with Indian influences – structured around various vamps, cycling rhythmic devices and modalities, but across a more complex range than the previous act. More consciously cerebral (and I don't use the word as an insult but as a description), much of his music is based on mathematical properties such as the Fibonacci sequence. Certainly, the use of piano puts the music into a different harmonic space – even though the music would often return to a base tonic, the chromatic flourishes of Vijay Ayer gave a denser feel to the melodic and harmonic interplay. Dan Weiss on drums and François Moutin on acoustic bass made up the quartet, the latter having a few problems with his amplification, an annoyance they dealt with in good humour. A very tight band, led firmly from the front by Mahanthappa's surging alto. In comparison to the support group, it seemed that the leader had added some further levels of complexity to the planting of his Asian cultural roots in the soil of jazz. Bass and drums also worked with more flexibility. I had a flash of Steve Coleman, oddly enough, (although there is a connection – Mahanthappa has worked with him in the past) then Anthony Braxton, who combine similar mixtures of intellectual rigour and free emotional fire. These two are also alto players and composers who, in their unique ways, bring a mélange of wider world culture and theoretical interests to the music. So: brain and heart on display here tonight and a great end to my weekend, an evening where youthful and more seasoned visions combined to pose some interesting questions with regard to the future of the music. Balances shifting?

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