Composer and violin player Nistha Raj has studied Hindustani (North Indian) and Western classical music for most of her life. She was raised in Texas and graduated with honors from music studies at the University of Houston, and then studied music for three years in India through a scholarship with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. "This album is the first stop on my musical journey," she says of her Exit 1 debut. "That's why I called it Exit 1. Music is and always has been a journey for me and sometimes I don't know where the music will lead me but that excites me. This is my first album and it documents all the different collaborations so far on my journey."
So why not bite off the ambitious journey "From China to India" on your recorded debut? Based on a Hindustani raga and traditional Tibetan folk song, and jointly composed and arranged by Raj with Chinese violinist Anqi Xue, "From China to India" unites these cultures with identical twin violins. It's simultaneously curious and refreshing how their violins, when tabla stops pummeling thunder beneath them, sound like they're dancing an old-time reel from the Appalachian mountains. Raj dives into "The River" no less ambitiously: To illustrate the similarities and differences between ragas in the Hindustani (North Indian) and Carnatic (South Indian) traditions, with highlights from an Indian clay-headed double drum and a Latin cajón that paints in a flamenco tint.
Raj stays much closer to home for "Ek Pyar Ka Nagna Hai (Melody of Love)," a famous Bollywood song from the 1972 film Shor she covers to honor her mother. It opens in dignified beauty, with acoustic piano adorning her elegiac violin like sunrise arching over a stately castle, before the fuller ensemble enters to bear the melody aloft. It sounds crazy, but this arrangement cries out to be performed by The Pat Metheny Group with Lyle Mays. "I wanted something that was a tribute to her," Raj reflects. "She didn't play an instrument but she was my first teacher: She introduced me to such good music."
In "Jayanthi," Raj's violin swaps then engages in passionate lines with co-composer Aakash Mittal's saxophone like a long, sticky kiss, suspended in time by its circular melody and rhythm. "Aakash is a jazz musician and there's a lot of similarity between that and Indian classical music, a lot of improvisation based on a melody within a rhythmic cycle, although there are rules in classical music, you have to stay within the notes of the raga. My solos are very traditional and his embody that jazz contrast. So we come together but stay apart."
The prowess and passion of Exit 1's two closing tunes, the solo violin meditations "Gravity (Raga Charukeshi Alap)" and "Alibi (Raga Charukeshi Jor/Jhala)," seem to boil over directly from Raj's mind and heart. "It's so important to me that I play this music," she explains. "It's what resonates most deeply within me."
Shivranjani; Jayanthi; Ek Pyar Ka Nagna Hai; The River; Bhariravi Beatbox; From China to India; Adje Jano; Gravity (Raga Charukeshi Alap); Alibi (Raga Charukeshi Jor/Jhala).
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