In India, the 2012 film Neethane En Ponvasantham and its companion soundtrack proved to be quite the cultural event. Movie scenes were shot in three Indian languages (Tamil, Telugu and Hindi). The soundtrack was collaboratively written by the film's director, Gautham Menon, with lyricist Na. Muthakumar and Ilaiyaraaja, the composer globally known as "The Maestro" because he has written more than 4500 songs and scored more than 950 films in India.
While the film was released in December 2012, its widely anticipated soundtrack was premiered the preceding September at a stadium concert; each song was performed live by the singers and Hungarian session musicians who recorded the original score, Maestro Ilaiyaraaja, and the Anglo-Indian Music Productions orchestra. These musicians include guitarist Attila Laszlo, an Ilaiyaraaja soundtrack veteran, and drummer Ferenc Nemeth, who's also played with Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Russell Ferrante and the Lionel Loueke Trio.
Considering this past as prologue, Neethane En Ponvasantham presents surprisingly mainstream music. Every tune has vocals, and while several tunes present light and floating orchestration that's curiously jazz-like, these vocals often bring them back to earth. Acoustic and electric guitars and a string ensemble create an airy and beautiful melody for the opening "Saayndhu Saayndhu" that glows with the warm beauty of Pat Metheny's work with pianist Lyle Mays, behind the vocal by Yuvan Shankar Raja, Ilaiyaraaja's son. Similarly, the melody of "Kaatrai Konjam" seems to organically grow from blended strings, percussion, piano and oboe; strings, brass and reeds flow into a melodic pool beneath "Yennodu Vaa Vaa" that ripples with classic Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson instrumentation. These show Ilaiyaraaja to be both warm and brilliant.
"Vaanam Mella" features not only The Maestro's music but his actual voice! It opens with bagpipes, tympani, strings and an orchestra, full and lush, and settles into a bobbing, fluid rhythm; Ilaiyaraaja's pleasant, inviting vocal seems to instinctively contour to every melodic turn and bounce.
In two more demonstrative tunes, The Maestro Ilaiyaraaja flat-out rocks. Led by thick acoustic and electric guitars (even a grungy little blues break), "Pudikale Maamu" chops out rhythms, chords and hot licks that suggest an up-tempo Tom Petty tune. Near the end, "Pengal Yendral" vents the male lead's frustration in angry swarms of electric guitar, a heavy and hard downbeat, and Yuvan Shankar Raja's strident vocal, all produced in a shiny, metallic hard rock sound.
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