Be the Change
At dusk the cock announces dawn;
At midnight, the bright sun.
~ Zen Poem
Could there be an eternity beyond earthly opposites? Could a "This" and "That" cease to be? Could the unity of all opposites become a vivid experience? Could there be an endless dynamic interplay where opposites are at once unified, at once transcended? The Eastern mystics of yore called it by different names. Buddhists called it the state of achintya, while the Chinese thinkers Tao. The ancient Indian sages themselves called it Brahman. You and I, though, could possibly call it Prasanna - joy, as ineffable as the music!
There have been a few remarkable individuals who have journeyed this path before. Attempting to weave a musical web of interconnectedness. Among the earliest of these musical tantrikas , (after all, the root word Tantra in Sanskrit means "to weave") Pt. Ravi Shankar in the late 60s and 70s largely drew flak from the still un-violated(!) purist for his experiments with the strains of Western classical music stemming from the likes of a Yehudi Menuhin or a Bud Shank. Far from being a wondrous marriage that stood the test of time, it now in retrospect, seems to have been at best a hastily forgotten one-night stand. Played in sequence or in unison it remained distinctly separate in musical sensibility, style and grammar. At best it seemed to have the coquettish novelty of juxtaposed polarities. Never though, was there the transcendent beauty of a self-effacing mingling.
The 70s saw the emergence of the prodigiously talented brothers L.Subramanium and L.Shankar foraying, though seemingly the same musical frontiers, dramatically different temperamental and stylistic spaces. Blessed with monstrously wild talent and the amazing ten-string stereophonic LSD (L. Shankar's Double!), the inveterate form breaker L. Shankar collaborated with the likes of Don Cherry, Trilok Gurtu, Ed Blackwell, Jan Garbarek, Nana Vanconcelos on the one side and the manic Frank Zappa and his band Mothers of Invention, Phil Collins, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Marianne Faithful, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, U2 and The Pretenders on the other. A virtual smorgasbord of musical talent, styles and cultures...highbrow, lowbrow. The most celebrated experiment however, was the watershed music of Shakti with fellow aural explorers John Mc Laughlin, Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinyakram. In the many ways, one might dare say that it was the melting pot that first successfully evolved a musical idea that was a dynamic amalgam of Indian classical music with Jazz and Blues. More specifically, in this case with Shankar's unmistakably divine tonal inflexions or gamakas, Carnatic or South Indian style of classical music with Mc Laughlin's white-hot and simultaneously subtle acid jazz progressions. The razor sharp grasp of complex Indian time cycles ensured that it was bound watertight. For once, this was marriage that set concert halls the world over on fire. Revathi had never been so scorching or a Kathanakuthuhalam so raucous. With a fierier Mahavishnu Orchestra as predecessor (remember Birds Of Fire ?) it was probably no surprise. However, there perhaps is no fire that rages eternally and sure enough this musical explosion did not sustain past its third year.
Shakti, though, remains so seeped in the musical consciousness of afficionados of this music that crosses over back, forth and beyond that its new Avatars continue to remain relevant as a musical idiom to the day. U.Shrinivas, the Wolfgangian prodigy from a nondescript village in coastal Andhra; now substituting for the increasingly maverick L. Shankar, weaves magic on his tiny, fretted, 5-stringed electric mandolin almost on a routine basis. With McLaughlin alongside, one only realizes how truly incredible a musician he is. It will be hard too, to not mention the collaborations that the other inimitable genius L.Subramanium has had and continues to have with virtually the who's who of the western classical and jazz world. Yehudi Menuhin, Stephan Grappelli, Herbie Hancock, Joe Sample, Stanley Clark, Larry Correyl, Billy Cobham and Jean Luc Ponty are some from that illustrious list.
However incredible the music might have been the discerning ear would still realize that but for Shakti perhaps, each of these trail blazers essentially played Indian classical music in a crossover musical environment. The only shared common space seemed to be the time cycle and the scale itself. All else the musical style, diction, grammar...stayed in their own places however much the intent was to bring them together. Like a coarse fabric, though seemingly together, gaping spaces of unrealized intent kept the threads apart.
With Be The Change , we may have been gifted with the finest and most intricate aural Kancheevaram to date. None has woven one such, where the warp of the West has so inseparably been woven with the weft of the East. So much so that this musical fabric will forever remain truly indescribable.
If you can imagine someone whose musical conception besides ability might be found to be equally appropriate at Tiruvaiyaru, Isle of Wight and Montreux then you may be willing to fathom that chromaticism, ragabedham, bebop, kunakkol, funk, 7/4 slipping into 4/4 and a Gibson Les Paul with a Boss GT-5 FX processor put together need not be mind numbing cacophony. In fact, that's verily the indescribably beautiful music that I talk of the music of Prasanna.
With a world-class line-up of collaborators which includes two revered bassists, the now legendary ex-Weather Report Alphonso Johnson and the super-talented Victor Wooten, pianist and saxophonist Andy Suzuki, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, drummers Derico Watson and Ralph Humphry, Prasanna stuns more often than not with his distinct brand of music. Despite being unique, it seems effortlessly natural rather than pretentiously contrived. A natural eclecticism of sorts.
To begin with "Pangea Rising" gives an idea of things to come. A straight-ahead jazz piece that eases in with a reedy Afro-Latin groove and feel, not unlike Weather Report. Rock riffs motor in and settle into a refrain only to give way to an acoustic bebop bridge that transforms into a Tanam-like progression which at one point trips into the scale of Behag.
Prasanna's use of kunnakol is particularly saucy in "Ta Ka Ta Ki Ta Blues". A subtle cyclically altering saxophone/guitar refrain gives way to a burning lead in Kiravani that transforms to Todi somewhere along the way. Derico Watson cuts loose to round it all off.
Satyam employs Prasanna's lyrics sung to a Sufi-like refrain with elements of funk. Andy Suzuki's improvisations dramatically leads on to Prasanna's brief alapana (yes! in the midst of the composition) which in turn leads us to a rock lead and then tails off in a blaze of gamaka-laden phrases.
Complex rhythm sections and sparkling acoustic up-tempo straight-ahead jazz characterizes "Raga Bop". Predominantly improvised on the raga Kapi, Prasanna rapidly bebops in only to dramatically slow down in a bluesy bridge section. The piece seems to have a distinct Thillana-like feel. I wonder though, if even the most enthusiastic Bharathanatyam dancer would attempt this one!
If there has been at all any flaw in this incredible effort, it probably has been in the relative superficialities - of cover designs, sleeve notes and the rather tame naming of compositions. Though recent, seems to be a noticeable tradition with Peaceful , the first album, only marginally worse off. Grapevine though, is a brilliant exception to the alleged case. Truly a mini saga of sorts with tales woven within musical tales; it has been crafted with great wit. Seemingly innocuous at first hearing, one realizes gradually the conspirational tone of improvised saxophone solos against a backdrop of a seemingly sycophantic guitar refrain. The eventual repartees that fly back and forth are brilliantly improvised particularly on the guitar. One can pick up traces of Natabhairavi or Shanmughapriya in these progressions, eventually.
"Dharma Becomes Alibama" is a hauntingly beautiful composition that combines the ragas Dharmavathi and Sama. Subdued use of reeds gives this piece a Moorish feel. Stylistically speaking it blends in bebop and blues. A beautiful swarajathi in Dharmavathi that somehow is part of the scheme of things, like so many other elements that coalesce together almost stealthily and dissipate in a trice makes one yearn for more. Interestingly, Prasanna's other celebrated collaborator and mainstream film composer A.R. Rahman had used the same combination of ragas in the song "Mazhargale" from the Tamil film Romeo in which incidentally our protagonist had a hand too. A blistering lead in Dharmavathi that sets the song ablaze.
"Uncensored" again brings together Prasanna's kunakkol and Ralph Humphrey's captivating lead in on a 7/4 time signature. The opening is vaguely reminiscent of Billy Cobham's "Stratus". Has a funk and raunchy Latin feel thanks to Andy Suzuki's raspy playing. Prasanna's exhibition of chromaticism is shimmering. And if my ears were not playing tricks, I might have heard a bit of Abheri in those lightning fast progressions that by now have quite stealthily slid in to a 4/4.
The piece de résistance of the album is served up at the stratospheric highs that the listener is ushered in to by now. "Bliss Factor" is precisely the kind of piece that one conjures up at the mention of Carnatic-jazz fusion. With an explosive drum lead in and crackling chops Derico Watson along with Wooten create a taut rhythm section. Set to the 8 beat Adi Tala, Prasanna embellishes this gamaka-laden Anandabharavi piece in funky groove. Using a Boss GT-5 FX processor manages a veena-like tone that lends itself well along with the gamakas to create a sonic ambience that one might recognize as Carnatic. A duet between the acoustic and electric guitar in Sahana is delightful. However, the two ragas here are not employed as a ragabedham like it is magically used in "Dharma".
If there is one composition that brings to the fore the sensitivity and appreciation of the Indian aesthetic, particularly by the western musicians on the set, it has to be divinely lyrical "Kalyani Connection." Alphonso Johnson's fluid bass lines sensuously meander to cull out the essence of a languorous Kalyani. A scale which perhaps is imprinted in the very grain of the human spirit for it can be traced almost universally, from Hungarian gypsies to Slovakian folk to hoary Indian classical compositions. Prasanna uses the sustain to great effect with Suzuki's delicate piano work providing a contrapuntal canvas. The subtle sense of the dramatic is heightened to a climatic contrast with the acoustic and the electric intertwining with an almost improbable restraint.
To the musical itinerant there might well be a trail where the occidental ear eventually hears the same music that the oriental discerns and the other way around. Where the same ear would eventually be in thrall of Bach and Dikshitar. That meandering trail would possibly make its way through a few shimmering touchstones in the vast spaces in between - Coltrane's A Love Supreme , Miles Davis' Bitches Brew , Weather Report's Black Market , Mahavishnu Orchestra's Inner Mounting Flame , Shakti's Natural Elements and, I suspect, Prasanna's Be The Change.
The music of Prasanna is verily about possibilities of a coming together, of emergence, of dissolution, of transformation, of a going beyond, of the very note. In that endless field of possibilities there remains the singular truth - of a transcendent experience.
The Upanishads probably talk of the same, only infinitely more beautifully so.
Tranquil, let one worship It
As that from which he came forth
As that into which he will be dissolved,
As that in which he breathes.
Prasanna (Guitars/ Vocals); Victor Wooten (Bass); Alphonso Johnson (Bass); Jeff Coffin (Saxophones/Woodwinds); Shalini (Vocals); Andy Suzuki (Saxophones/Woodwinds/Piano); Ralph Humphrey (Drums); Derico Watson (Drums)
Pangea Rising; Ta Ka Ta Ki Ta Blues; Satyam; Raga Bop; Grapevine; Dharma Becomes Alibama; Uncensored; Bliss Factor I; Bliss Factor II; Kalyani Connection
Personnel: Prasanna (Guitars/ Vocals); Victor Wooten (Bass); Alphonso Johnson (Bass); Jeff Coffin (Saxophones/Woodwinds); Shalini (Vocals); Andy Suzuki (Saxophones/Woodwinds/Piano); Ralph Humphrey (Drums); Derico Watson (Drums)