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Live Reviews

Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3

By Published: April 27, 2011

April 22: Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar

With Punkt over, Jazzkaar returned to its normal programming, though normal is a relative term. First up on April 22, was an appearance, at the same venue, of percussionist Talvan Singh. Born in England, of Indian descent, Singh first garnered attention when—after growing up listening to a combination of punk music, traditional Indian music and the emerging techno scene 1990s London—he was recruited as tablaist/vocalist on the Siouxsie and the Banshees hit, "Kiss Them For Me." Having studied for two years in India, his cross-cultural upbringing rendered him too dilute for classical Indian purists, but he found a busy home in pop music, not only as a touring member of the Banshees, but as percussionist and director for Björk and her breakthrough album, Debut (One Little Indian, 1993). In the nascent drum 'n' bass scene of the mid-1990s, the often rainbow color-haired Singh created an even bigger name for himself through his Monday night Akokha club nights at East London's Blue Note, which led to his 1998 solo debut, OK (Island, 1998) and further collaborations with artists including David Sylvian
David Sylvian
David Sylvian
and Madonna.

From left: Talvin Singh, Niladri Kumar

Singh's hair is no longer dyed, but his Jazzkaar performance, while demonstrating, in no uncertain terms, his affinity for his Indian tradition, still remained rooted in the 21st century, through his use of programming, and some effects processing on his tablas. And while the show leaned even harder on tradition in his collaboration with Niladri Kumar, the virtuoso sitarist also used a small looping device, to create rhythm loops, over which the duo could improvise. The duo was touring to support Together (World Village, 2011), and the packed room at their 3:00 PM show was treated to a mix of old and new, sublime and exhilarating, and a tremendous demonstration of simpatico playing that made their 90 minute set a true revelation.

Opening the set with the album's title track, an intro of ambient synths led to an opening table salvo from Singh that ultimately turned to a simple series of chord changes, over which Kumar played an equally simple, singable melody. Even in a context of such restraint, however, it was clear that his command of his instrument was thorough; the sitar is an instrument that can handle large-interval bends, but Kumar seemed to be able to push them beyond all reason. As the song gradually picked up steam, Singh pushing the pulse with a driving rhythm, Kumar began to hint at the virtuosity Singh referred to, when he introduced him at the start of the set.

But it was the next piece—an extended medley of tracks culled from the album—where both Kumar and Singh demonstrated their deep empathy and individual strengths. Kumar began alone, playing so quietly that it was almost necessary to lean forward to hear him, despite the banks of speakers on both sides of the stage. There was no programming this time, but Kumar did, occasionally, create a rhythm loop in real time; and, as Singh joined him, it was clear just how patiently both players allowed the piece to evolve over 30 minutes or more, and with a series of climaxes where each successive one seemed to eclipse the last. The eye contact was constant, and between the sweat and grins, it was clear the two were having a tremendous time.

Talvin Singh

Singh utilized four tabla drums of differering sizes, and demonstrated tremendous control, as he brought them in and out of the mix, at times even creating simple bass lines to support Kumar. A third piece was driven by a strong 4/4 pulse, but with heavy emphasis on the "two" and "four," and a repeating synth melody, as echo was added to Singh's tablas at the soundboard, creating an even more complex mesh of polyrhythms. While Singh introduced the set, Kumar took a moment to speak to the audience before the closing piece, joking "If you like the album, buy it; if you don't like the album, buy it for someone you don't like...either way, please buy it," as the duo launched into an almost impossibly up-tempo closer that peaked with Kumar reaching higher and higher into the sitar's upper register, only to finally swoop down in perfect synch with Singh, for an abrupt and powerful ending. It was a given that the enthusiastic crowd would demand an encore.

The set was also defined by some very tasteful lighting, with deep blues, indigos and reds creating a warm contrast to the brisker afternoon colors and climate outside the venue, a tiny pocket of intimacy that made it a revelation for those unfamiliar, and clarification for those who were. Together was the result of a year of touring, and there's no doubt that this collaboration deserves to continue; on the strength of the record, and of the performance, this is a duo with plenty to say.

Visit Punkt, Sidsel Endresen, Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Tord Knutsen, J. Peter Schwalm, Guy Sigsworth, Segakoor Noorus, Veljo Tormis, Ensemble U:, Weekend Guitar Trio, Talvin Singh, Niladri Kumar and Jazzkaar on the web.

Photo Credit
All Photos: John Kelman

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6Days 4-6 | Days 7-8

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