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Tirtha at The Jazz Standard

Budd Kopman By

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Tirtha at The Jazz Standard
The Jazz Standard
New York City, NY
November 6, 2007

Tirtha (pronounced "TEER-tha") is a new project brought together by pianist Vijay Iyer that is a trio including the phenomenal electric guitarist Prasanna and the young virtuoso tabla player Nitin Mitta.

This amazing and very exciting one-night-only show was co-sponsored by National Geographic Traveler, and the house was almost packed for the early show with a line extending up the stairs for the late show.

Iyer has built quite a following in the past few years by being one of the leading exponents of the Indo-Jazz subgenre. This music features the mixing of Classical Indian music (particularly Carnatic Music or music from southern India) with the Western jazz aesthetic.

Many people find Classical Indian music hypnotic and sensuous, with no beginning and no end, allowing the listener to enter circular time. The many scales that are available are built differently from those of the West and use microtones (relative to our twelve step chromatic scale). There is a feeling of a root or home note (typically played by the tuned tabla drum) but no sense of direction or resolution that is part of the Western harmonic system. Rhythmically, the music is very complicated, with the main pulse subdivided many different ways, allowing for longer beats to shift in and out of phase.

All of this rhythmic complexity was happening within the context of compositions by Iyer and Prasanna that had clear themes and sections played by the well-tempered piano and guitar. Mittin, with his array of drums, was flanked by Prasanna on the left and Iyer on the right.

The band was playing just its third concert together, and the lack of time to really gel as an ensemble was evident in how deliberatively themes were introduced or sections were ended. However, this is a quibble, because within each piece the playing was masterful and totally engrossing.

Because of his visibility and movement, Prasanna captured the attention whenever he took the lead. Already a true world musician with a jazz degree from the Berklee College of Music in Boston and a mastery of Indian music besides rock (see the Hendrix inspired Electric Ganesh Land), Prasanna adds a specific stylistic wrinkle to his playing. Using very rapid wide and narrow slides, the unique sound of sitar is invoked, and he actually stretched his fingers very little. Masterfully building solo after solo, he was simply hypnotizing.

Mittin is also a virtuoso, able to make the tabla talk and dance with the utmost control. Playing the dual roles of pulse-keeper and melodic voice effortlessly, the tabla master held the group together in his low- key way. Badal Roy, who was in the audience, could be heard saying to him afterwards that he just could not do the things that Mittin had done.

Iyer projects a combination of intensity and joy when he plays. His left hand was always busy doing the job of a bassist while he found a myriad ways to color the harmonies that floated over the pedal note of the scale. He was most impressive in his musical conversations with Prasanna, ideas readily given and received by either musician.

The music, although residing quite solidly on the Indian side of the mix, teetered many times close to the edge of Western music whenever a chord or an actual progression was implied. It was also apparent that although the scales have less direction than do Western ones, thus allowing almost any note to be a resting place, there were audible "out" notes—shocking at least to these ears.

There is no doubt that, given playing time together, Tirtha will mature into a remarkable band and take audiences even higher than the heights attained on this night.

Visit Vijay Iyer, Prasanna and Nitin Mitta on the web.


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