Prasanna: Peaceful (2001)
At 31 , Prasanna is the only musician who performs the classical music of India on electric guitar at the highest professional level. As you might guess, this is another chapter to his astonishing story. Imagine the many hurdles, physical and mental, musical and cultural, his own and imposed by others, he must have had to overcome to reach such status in his homeland. Specifically, he performs Carnatic music, or the classical music of southern India, which is differentiated from the classical music of northern India (the kind popularized by Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan) by the fact that the pieces are composed, analogous to western classical music, like cello suites or string quartets. The thing that differentiates Carnatic music from western classical music is the element that drew Prasanna to jazz-and that in turn, will draw jazz listeners to him - improvisation.
This is Prasanna's first jazz, or world-fusion, or whatever category you want to label it, recording, aptly titled Peaceful. "Raghunatha" draws western listeners in handily with very contemporary funky calypso rhythms, and can be thoroughly enjoyed without knowing that it's an inventive rearrangement of a traditional Carnatic classical composition. When I listen to this tune I hear foremost a "simple," upbeat head that continues throughout the tune, from beginning to end. But somehow, it is never redundant, only more and more enjoyable, with intricacies added in the form of different articulations, different subdivisions of the beat, different hammer- ons and pull-offs. I mean, in a very pleasing and intriguing way, I really can't tell you if notes are being added to the phrase or not. What I can tell you is the tune has accomplished its goal. It has drawn the "unfamiliar" (and by this I mean unfamiliar with the fact that this cd has at its core, a basis in Indian music) into the record in bright fashion while retaining significant measures of complexity and nuance. And it drives home a good point for the listener to "get" in the first tune. Like the greatest of rhythmically complex music, from Coleman to Zappa, from Madagascar to Zimbabwe, it's best for the listener to enjoy first, and analyze as time and desire permit.
"Culture of Silence" is clearly raga-based, simultaneously bearing a harmonic connection to western blues while functioning as an evocative soundtrack for thoughts of those that may have been silenced. You're starting to get deep into the trip of the tune and the cd by song's end, so the next cut, a meticulous, letter-perfect reading of Bach's "Minuet," is actually startling to the ears at this point. It drives home the western classical/carnatic connection, especially if you happen to know that no transcriptions of this piece for guitar are played in the exact registers as written by Bach. Here they are played as close to Bach's harpsichord score, while keeping every note in the exact register, as is humanly possible on a standardly tuned, acoustic steel -stringed guitar.
"Peaceful" is the two part title cut, the first of which is a raga beautifully articulated on electric guitar with a healthy dose of delay. Especially enjoyable to my ears are some of the phrases incorporating sliding double-stops. Part I really brings home the mastery Prasanna brings to bear over the electric guitar in terms of technique. There are some new things happening here. The guitar is fretted, but I am sure to Prasanna, there simply are no frets. The fact that the fret is there as some sort of guideline or boundary ceases to matter. I'd go so far as to say that previously used terms such as sitar-like, or fretless-sounding, simply just do not apply. That being said, Prasanna's axes are equally sitar-sounding as a sitar and as fretless-sounding as a fretless. Transparent fluidity is the operative paradigm here. It's interesting to note that the western listener will probably easily "recognize" that Part I of the tune incorporates an "alternate" tuning; a tuning which in fact is recognized as a "classical" tuning in India. Such are the trappings of western musical thinking.
Part II thematically rocks out, in proud old-school fusion style, a variant of the raga set up in Part I. Note the differences in the two passes Prasanna takes at the solo, one steeped in jazz rock, the other coming from an eastern, yet somehow Latin direction. While the first pass certainly kills it, the second solo highlights how Prasanna's use of authentic raga vocabulary, in this case, microtonal slurring, can lend newfound improvisational validity to and bend the ear toward some staple rock phrases. And make sure to dig that incredible ending.
"Speak Up Sam" is a solo guitar piece incorporating dense and dissonant sounding quartal chord clusters, time changes, and angular lines to effectively convey the alarm, desperation and sadness relating to the death of a close friend. "The Night Sky" leads us out of this space, at first dissonantly, and then with beautiful lyricism. Featuring acoustic 12-string and Prasanna on vocals, the liner notes reveal it is intended as a tribute to Mozart's "Concerto for Flute and Harp." The electric solo on this one nicely owes more to the tradition of acid psychedelia than any classical musics.
If you want to hear what a relatively straight reading of Carnatic music sounds like on electric, cue up "Jagadanandakaraka" composed by the great Carnatic composer Tyagaraja, given a purposely precise and percussion-less reading by Prasanna. Not too "straight" -sounding, eh? For a shot at a solo jazz guitar, try "Wrinkle in Time" which sports no Indian ornamentation-just some killer legato bop lines and modern chord phraseology. Nasika Blues is an improvised blues on solo acoustic derived from two ragas, sporting plenty of Indian ornamentation. This one drives home the healthy level of respect Prasanna gives to the individuality of each axe he unpacks from the case. "Theeratha vilayattu Pillai" juices a classical raga with jazz rock stylings and strings. " Gaza" is a solo electric improvisation based on a Carnatic raga that may be the showcase for Prasanna's fluid chops on the disc.
As the 99 reflective seconds of "Cosmic Potato" flit by I reflect on what to say, to you, the reader, to drive home the fact that this one is truly different, truly brilliant, truly deserving of wider attention. Obviously, at this time of the year end list, it's right there. Plus it's another truly independent (get it at www.guitarprasanna.com) release that has somehow made its way to me, and I regard it as a very real find. More importantly, it's the disc released this year that I would most heartily recommend to anyone. Why? Because it is a dramatic and uncontestable reaffirmation that potential and possibilities are infinite, not only for improvised music, not only for the guitar, but for some of the amazing humans who play them.
Track Listing: Raghunatha, Culture of Silence, Bach Minuet, Peaceful - Part I,Part II, Speak Up Sam, The Night Sky, Jagadanandakaraka, Wrinkle in Time, Nasika Blues, Theeratha vilayattu Pillai, Gaza, Cosmic Potato
Personnel: Prasanna- all guitars, all keyboards, selected synth/drum programming, Chandrasekhar -additional synth/drum programming, J. Vaidhyanathan- Mridangam, S. Karthick-Ghatam, morsing, Keith Peters-electric bass (track 5), Aravind- additional drum pogramming (track 5)
Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock