A critical hue and cry has recently arisen over the release of CDs featuring Indian-jazz fusions. Expressions such as "astonishing," "spellbinding" and "swings like mad" have been used to describe alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's interesting album Kinsmen on the Pi label. Grammy nominations and five-star reviews have poured in for Miles From India, Bob Belden's retrospective on Times Square Records of such Davis recordings as Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew.
The east-west fusion has been going on for more than 40 years, e.g., George Harrison's sitar playing on Norwegian Wood (1965), Indian classical music selections on Mahavishnu's Inner Mounting Flame (1971), Miles Davis' employment of sitar and tablas in On the Corner (1972) and many other recent but less memorable recordings. Despite this long history, jazz critics have recently become newly enamored with Carnatic violins, multiphonics, quarter tones, the cyclical rhythms of Talas and Ragas and the sounds of exotic Indian instruments such as khanjiras, sarods, sarangis and mridangams. While this invasion of Indian musicality is surely fascinating, the question remains as to whether or not it advances the tradition of jazz in a meaningful way. Mahanthappa himself is "wary of Indian-jazz fusions," and before any final critical pronouncements are written it might do to listen and wait for awhile.
Mahanthappa's music is best heard on the Kinsmen and Apti CDs, creations based on ideas that he developed under the Carnatic (southern Indian) influence of Kadri Gopalnath . For the uninitiated, the saxophone improvisations heard on the albums recall some of the modal scales played by Coltrane in his later work. The sound is largely dissonant, with many repetitions of motifs and figures.
Born in 1971 of Indian parents, Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder Colorado and, after considerable early jazz activity graduated from Berklee College of Music and then took a master's degree in jazz composition at DePaul University. In an association based in New York with pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, Mahanthappa spent time recording music which only perfunctorily touched on the Indian forms. It is the study with Gopalnath that is responsible for his recent immersion in the forms and his last CDs. Those who listen to Kinsmen and Apti will find abundant food for thought and receive considerable education in the esoterica of Indian music.
The Miles from India double CD contains some familiarity. Although the liner notes indicate that trumpeter Wallace Roney doesn't "imitate" Davis's distinctive sound, there are phrases where listeners will have difficulty distinguishing the two. Rudresh Mahanthappa takes a solo in "Spanish Key" that hearkens back to many Coltrane lines recorded during the Sketches of Spain period. This CD contains cameo performances from a host of Miles Davis alumni, including Chick Corea, Gary Bartz, Dave Liebman, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and others. The Indian contingent is represented by keyboardist Louiz Banks, Mahanthappa, and sitarist Ravi Chari.
Listeners will hear Davis hallmarks including "So What," "It's About That Time," "All Blues" and "Miles Runs the Voodoo Down."
The Indian invasion has indeed arrived with a juggernaut of creative production and critical commentary not seen in quite a while. It remains to be seen just where all of this will take us.