Monday, December 10, 2007

Svajanam/Kinsmen – Dakshina Ensemble featuring Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa @ Asia Society, New York, November 7, 2007

The evening was truly unique. Two alto saxophone masters with both their roots in South India on the stage together: Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa – hence the title of the collaboration: Svajanam means ‘kinsmen’ in Sanskrit. But as to their approach to the saxophone, in many ways, the similarities between the two ended with their instruments and ethnicity. Despite this, the music that followed presented an amazing amalgamation of classical Indian tradition and that of American jazz.

The collaboration in practice brought together two bands each led by the respective sax masters. Kadri Gopalnath is celebrated as the first person to play Indian classical music with the decisively Western instrument, the saxophone. His renditions of Carnatic music of South India have brought him fame in his home country, as well as abroad through his many recordings and concerts in North America, Europe, Australia and Asian countries. On this night, his cohorts included the renowned female violinist A. Kanyakumari and Poovalur Sriji on various Indian percussions and electronics. Dressed in traditional garb and seated on rugs placed on a small stand on the stage, the trio could have performed pure Indian classical music.

To their left stood Rudresh Mahanthappa with his New York-based jazz quartet, consisting of guitarist Rez Abbasi, Carlo De Rosa on bass and royal hartigan on drums. Mahanthappa is by many considered one of the most original young voices on the alto sax and has been recognized as such by the prestigious Down Beat magazine over the past several years. Elegant in a black suit and dark blue shirt, wearing his wavy hair long, he looked the part of the young jazz lion that he is.

I am only making this distinction between the two sides to emphasize the varying starting points of the musicians. In reality, on stage the two musical traditions melded seamlessly into one, flowing in and out of the moulds. Both leaders, each of them masters of improvisation, soloed powerfully throughout the evening. Gopalnath blew lengthy raga-like scales covering the full range of the instrument from the honking low register to whining laments on the upper reaches. Curiously, he would sit back and remove the headjoint of his colourfully decorated sax every time any of the other musicians would start soloing.

Deeply rooted in be-bop, Mahanthappa’s playing was bluesy and his articulation more syncopated than that of his older kinsman. Mahanthappa’s alto sound is clear and unsentimental even when soaring through fast and complex runs.

The concert was paced to alternate heated rhythms created by the Indian team with Gopalnath and A. Kanyakumari’s flexible solos and pensive moods when the two traditions merged to produce new and often hauntingly beautiful moments. Some of the highlights featured Mahanthappa’s solo ballads that were matched by the inventive guitar of the Karachi-born Rez Abbasi, a rising star in modern jazz guitar in his own right.

The two Americans forming the jazz foundation of the band demonstrated their sensitivity and big ears throughout the evening. Both De Rosa and royal hartigan responded to the challenges created by the musical adventure in an extraordinarily imaginative way. Their collaboration with Poovalur Sriji’s complicated and impressive rhythms was both respectful and adding nuance to the melange. Sriji’s own credentials, ranging from performing with Western artists, such as Yehudi Menuhin and Bela Fleck, as well as with leading Indian musicians, speak for themselves. Carlo De Rosa produced one of the most memorable solos of the evening on his upright bass.

The truth is that the musicians were truly able to cross over the musical barriers that lesser talents might find insurmountable. At the end of the evening, the listener did not think about the contrasting idioms of Indian classical music and jazz; one only remembered a rewarding musical experience in which the totality was distinctly larger than the sum of its parts. Svajanam first debuted on these same premises at the Asia Society in 2005. As the creators hoped writing in the concert leaflet, Svajanam truly highlighted the “multi-faceted intricacies and intersections of jazz and Carnatic music thus creating a sound that transcends the label of ‘Indo-Jazz fusion’.” I look forward to a long continuation of this fruitful collaboration. Kadri Gopalnath and Rudresh Mahanthappa truly are kinsmen.

© Juha Uitto 2007

No comments: