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Phil Scarff: Ragas on Saxophone

Geno Thackara By

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Plenty of Western players have been inspired by the exotic sounds and qualities of Indian music. It's a much smaller number who've formally studied its classical traditions, however, and fewer still have been successful enough to master the forms and play to the acclaim of Indian audiences. Quick—can you name one off the top of your head apart from John McLaughlin? If not, you're probably still in the majority even among jazz connoisseurs.

If Phil Scarff is a less-known name, it's not because of any lesser commitment to the music. The Boston-based saxophonist is versatile enough to switch among Indian classical ensembles, improvisational jazz combos, the Indo-African fusion collective Natraj and an eclectic duo with pianist Lewis Porter. Ragas on Saxophone is a simple concept that seems obvious—why hasn't it been done more often?—yet, of course, the novelty isn't the point at all. He approaches the music with the utmost discipline and respect.

This live performance at 2015's Hirai Music Festival in Chandrapur was accompanied by tablaist Bhushan Parchure (a student of Ustad Alla Rakha and Ustad Zakir Hussain, which already says good things about him in his own right). The program finds a way to cover a lot of ground through Scarff's own career as well. It's an enticing mix of traditional ragas and his own compositions in the form, also making time for a stirringly lovely devotional piece in the center.

He embodies this melding of traditions right in the extended opener, floating patiently through his own alap (improvised introduction) to the traditional "Raga Puriya Dhanashri." Parchure keeps the twelve-beat rhythm for the piece's main body while Scarff gradually weaves his own spin on it: he subtly adjusts the usual slow opening pattern to better suit his instrument and eventually trails off with some fun leisurely capering by the end. He sticks to soprano sax for the entire performance, which makes a perfect choice for slow silky scales and quick-fluttering lines alike.

The cultural blending continues throughout: the traditional "Raga Yaman" has its first section adapted from the normal sixteen-beat rhythm to a fascinating seven. Scarff's own "Raga Rageshri," meanwhile, coasts in a cycle of ten while his sax swoops with the suave coolness of a jazzy jam session. There's a palpable joy in the playing of both musicians, though the performance's intensity stays at a patient smoldering burn tastefully suitable for the occasion. Even when the lively folk song "Kajri Dhun" brings things to a bright close, Scarff's jaunty lines stay focused and Parchure never loses the pace. It's a performance that shows exquisite craft and still sounds effortless: a happily mesmerizing experience indeed.

Track Listing: Raga Puriya Dhanashri, Alap; Raga Puriya Dhanashri, Vilambit Ektaal; Raga Yaman, Eri Aali Piya Bina, Madhya Rupaktaal; Raga Yaman, Drut Tintaal; Mogara Phulala, Raga Gorakh Kalyan; Raga Rageshri, Alap; Raga Rageshri, Madhya Jhaptaal; Kajri Dhun.

Personnel: Phil Scarff: soprano saxophone; Bhushan Parchure: tabla.

Title: Ragas on Saxophone | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Galloping Goat

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