The music of pianist Vijay Iyer and altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa always communicates a feeling of importance, whether they appear individually or together in any of a myriad of groups. The "alter ego" analogy is perhaps a bit stale by now, but their decade-long connection is on full display in Raw Materials.
Their musical background comes from the Carnatic (southern Indian), as opposed to Hindustani (northern Indian) tradition. However, if you're familiar with Iyer's recent release Reimagining (Savoy, 2005) or Mahanthappa's Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004), you'll know that for both of these intense musicians, this musical background underpins and suffuses the music, but it's alloyed with so much of their Western musical experience that the result is something new.
The spirit which emerges from this duo is a true partnership. Iyer and Mahanthappa continually trade the lead role, many times playing "in front" together, creating a dense sound. Much of Iyer's playing has a very Late Romantic feel, as if pre-twelve-tone Schoenberg had spent years in India, merging that white-hot European fire with moist heat. Every note Mahanthappa plays, even softly, has a strong, forceful direction and pressure. His sound is quite vocal, with more than a touch of the reed burr, and he speaks, not implores, through his horn.
The first twelve of these thirteen magnificent tracks come from a suite called "Sangha: Collaborative Fables," and thus seem connected. From the first notes of "The Shape of Things," the musical stage is set, and we are transported to a land of pure music. This introductory piece could easily be mistaken for Wagner during its first measures. Iyer sets the pedal tone and almost a tonality with the opening interval, blurring it with high notes out of "key" and creating a feeling of Indian timelessness. Mahanthappa then enters, proclaiming the same rising fourth, but then hits the leading tone of the Western scale, treating it, however, in the Indian manner of scale, rather than key. The phrase then lands on a clear major third, but the music refuses to be pinned down to tonal considerations. Yet the piece ends in a tonal rest.
The rest of suite's movements, although they create entirely different moods, all share this musical space which drifts back and forth between East and West, blending the two into one. Each track has its charms, but a highlight is "Come Back," a love song which extends and stretches the ballad form and feeling until it almost sounds like a recital of Schubert leider transcribed for piano and saxophone. The two musicians manage the tension expertly over the six-plus minutes, and you might end up with wet eyes from the beauty of it all.
There is much more to appreciate on Raw Materials, a total triumph from beginning to end.
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