Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan with Amaan and Ayaan

The Dalai Lama sent his blessings and good wishes to his friend Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and his sons, and to the audience to enjoy the beautiful music last Saturday. It was an apt beginning, since, as Amjad Ali Khan Sahib said in the program notes, you can't be abusive or tell a lie through pure sound.
As this is the centennial year of the launch of the Satyagraha Movement, he started his solo with a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi in the form of two songs,
Vaishnav Janato, in Raga Khammaj, and Ram Dhun, in Raga Ghara. The alaap, or first movement, which is an exploration of the notes without tabla, was brief and lamenting, but by the jhala or third movement, Ram Dhun was ringing out with both sets of tabla in a fourteen beat cycle, like Satyagraha gathering force.

The extraordinary warmth and clarity of the acoustics at Carnegie Hall make a real treat even better. The views are fine, too. Again with the bird binoculars, I watched closely as he launched into Raga Kamod and both Tabla masters began to develop complex time schemes in ten and fourteen beat cycles. I saw that the heavy silk electric blue kurta that the maestro wore (not the one above) was self-embroidered with butis and that a truly fine painted antique shawl lay over his feet. The beautiful tanpura player with parted bangs glittered softly in self-beaded black while keeping the true tonic on the tambura and "sympathizing" with style and humor. Samir Chatterjee, tabla master of the Farrukhabad style, had on a kurta printed with tablas. Opposite, tabla master Sukhvinder Singh, (see video), a disciple of the great Kishan Maharaj of Varanasi, and also a recording partner of Ry Cooder, wore a less innovative but nevertheless fine embroidered cream silk kurta. The rug seemed to be a huge old Bokhara. Amjad Ali Khan Sahib explained that his father had invented the technique of playing the fretless sarod with his nails, rather than by holding down notes with his fingertips. This is how he makes his instrument weep and sing like a human voice with an impossible range.

He and his sons, who are also his disciples, are the First Family of the Sarod and comprise the sixth and seventh generation of the Senia Bangash Gharana, named after their family. Their ancestor brought an instrument called the rabab to India from Afghanistan in the 18th Century, which the family developed into the sarod in India. When Amman (left) and Ayaan (right) came onstage, they both exuded glamor, but there was no mistaking the star quality of the baby of the family. They each gave their first public performances at eight, and are closely matched as performers, though with completely different styles and sarod voices. Amman wore watermelon silk with a panel of pale gold zirdosi work. Ayaan, who ran his fingers through his hair in the manner of a Doon school boy, yet still landed on the time cycle with panache. wore sapphire blue with the darker gold zirdosi work hanging stalactites off his shoulders. Yes, they have a new hit album called Reincarnation (hear a clip at the link), and a video to go with it, both topping the Indian charts for thirteen weeks, and yes, they've played electronica with ex-Allman Brothers Band member Derek Trucks, and played every possible venue worldwide. They showed their youthful brilliance onstage, interspersing their family technique with the use of their fingertips, sometimes to strongly percussive effect. I have never heard two sarods played at once before; the effect of two powerful musicians playing an evening raga at fast tempo was electrifying. Then
Ayaan anounced his father's return to the stage, saying he would never play after him.

The brothers in Mumbai, August 2005, at the launch of their album, Reincarnation; An Electronic Odyssey

With father and sons playing variations on folk ballads, the simpler, familiar forms made for a gentle but rousing evocation (for me) of Baul singers -- if only because I've never heard Bihu from Assam. The concluding Carnatic Raga Mishra Kirwani was evocative too, as I've been watching Bharat Natyam lately. For the jhala, Amaan and Ayaan started echoing their father's phrases in an alternating dialogue, eventually playing in unison with him for a resounding conclusion. In closing, Amjad Ali Khan Sahib reminded the audience that in Indian classical music everything is improvised; the performance is not rehearsed. He thanked his wife, who was in the audience, then presented the musicians and thanked his tanpura player especially.

Ustad Amjad Ali Khan's most recent album, Moksha, was released by Real World Records.

Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan (aka The Bangash Brothers, below) recording at the at the BBC Mailbox Studios. They recently published a book about their father called Abba... God's Greatest Gift to Us

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola

Last Wednesday, when the lights went down over Noah Kalina's understated and acoustically successful interior at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, the view over the Park at dusk glowed and the skyline glittered as eighteen fresh young faces took the stage. As the downlights gradually took over from the view, there was some talk in praise of WBGO 88.3FM while the legendary composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson appeared to conduct the evening's performance.

Now in its fifth year, The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra gives its audience a unique opportunity to observe stars in the making at that point where nuanced expression takes over from crisp and polished technique. the evening's program comprised a selection of Gerald Wilson's sophisticated compositions, including Blues for Manhattan and a piece written in tribute to Mexican matador Carlos Arruza. It was a pleasure to hear the Orchestra's seemingly easy precision and tight coordination, and both moving and amusing to hear their youthfully vigorous interpretation of Mr. Wilson's contemplation about Romance. I was especially impressed with and taken by certain performances: Sharel Cassity on alto saxe, Peter Mazza on guitar, Peter Reardon-Anderson on tenor saxe, and Matthew Heredia on bass. I think the whole room was riveted, as was I, to hear pianist Mayuko Katakura alternating her smooth and subtle delivery of complex passages with outright pyro technics and emphatic phrasing.

Gerry Wilson, whose long career encompasses years with Count
Basie, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, has also taught at Cal State and UCLA for decades. His compositions run the gamut from blues to swing and onward, and often feature Spanish themes. (Mr. Wilson is also, if I'm not very much mistaken, the father of the great Anthony Wilson, who has played with Diana Krall since her earliest days.)

Trumpet virtuoso
Sean Jones,
at 27, plays lead trumpet for Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and is at the same time an Assistant Professor at Dusquesne while teaching at other schools, and a widely admired and much recorded soloist who played on Gerald Wilson's 2003 CD, New York, New Sound. His strikingly mature, fluid and warm virtuosity remained sympathetic to the Orchestra, which was sweet.

(The Roster: Saxophone --Sharel Cassity, Alto (and Flute), William Reardon-Anderson, Alto (and Flute), Thomas Gardner, Tenor, Peter Reardon-Anderson, Tenor, Paul Nedzela, Baritone. Trombone --Marshall Gilkes alternating with James Burton, Willie Applewhite, Paul Tarussov, Christopher Crenshaw.
Trumpet--Lee Tatum Greenblatt. Brandon Lee, Etienne Charles, Satoru Ohashi, Kyle Athayde. Piano -- Mayuko Katakura. Guitar -- Peter Mazza. Bass--Matthew Heredia, Drums -- Jerome Jennings.)

-Sean Jones has three albums out,
Gemini, Eternal Journey and a new one, Roots(which explores gospel), all available at

-Click on
this link for MP3 downloads of selected recordings Gerald Wilson made between 1968- 2003.

-Pictures of this year's Juilliard Jazz Orchestra by Peter Schaaf are published here by kind permission of the Jazz Studies Division of The Juilliard School.

Picture of Gerald Wilson from Jazz News, of Sean Jones by Morrice Blackwell from

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Farewell Proscenium Arch! Cedar Lake Ballet

The tickets are green- meaning the dance company hands out large cards with mysterious instructions to roam the "installation," that are of course immediately returned by each member of the audience on entering the performance space. Everyone in the unsuspecting audience tries, at first, to position themselves advantageously or politely, depending on mood, personality and learning, but that's not the point. The dancers may say, quietly, "I need to be here", and gently move you aside from any location before it begins.

As far as i know, the performance began in front and off center, on the glass table under the video screen mounted on the ceiling, but it may just as well have started by the far walls. Anyway, it went up those walls, and in front, in suspension from bungee cord-like things, wth no reference to any surface, and up near the high ceiling and under the table. The audience took a few moments to loosen up and start wandering (and wondering)-- nobody saw everything, because it was everywhere. Everyone saw something extraordinary. It is ballet, but the strong, beautiful dancers of Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet (see video by scrolling up from the MEDIA tab at this link) dance with their hair and elbows, on pointe or barefoot or in gym shoes, in pair and groups and alone. The look is something faerie, the feeling something Fellini--is this not some ruin after the fall of Rome? Sometimes one must hang up one's classical tutu-- why not on the wall? The lighting often tells you where to look, but not always-- it depends on where you happen to be. Costumes and props dance in new ways too, as does the video accompaniment. Here is a man shaking up the pannier he wears, there is a novel pas de deux going on,with dancers wearing giant mouthguards, and accompanied by Edith Piaf singing La Vie en Rose.

The performance is highly choreographed or it would be dangerous. When dancers come shooting by, they need to be somewhere at exactly that moment. On Saturday, a woman from Philadelphia told me she saw a performance in which the dance company moved through an entire house....yet I'm certain nothing I saw at Cedar Lake Studios was ever seen before. If dance is the precursor to the lyric, it came from outdoors, and need not forever be captive to the stage and all its demands and rankings.

On Friday, the kids of the Sanskriti Center gave a Bharat Natyam performance of stories from the Ramayana, which ranged from the adorable to the astonishing --when it came to
Devika Urvashi Bhise and Sonia Anjolie Trehan, who, at sixteen, are carrying much of this art forward by themselves.

It was also the weekend of the White Wave Dance Festival in DUMBO, where Young Soon Kim had arranged for eighty seven (87) dance companies from near and far to show their stuff--much of it innovative, with glimpses of sheer brilliance, but there are almost no pictures for this post, which is why I have plans for Tuesday.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Pandit Birju Maharaj and the Nature of Rhythm

Last Wednesday, Sepia Mutiny posted a piece about Kathak in San Francisco, and mentioned that
Pt. Birju Maharaj would be in New York on Friday for a performance. For me, this was like hearing Nijinsky was in town to dance one last time, and right across the Park, too.

Briju Maharaj is the greatest living exponent of Kathak, as well as being the inheritor of the Lucknow Gharana, which has produced, arguably, the finest form of Kathak, leading other forms through at least two centuries. He has been known as a legend in his time since earliest youth, which led me to believe, as a child,
that he was already advanced in years. This and other other delusions gave Friday's simply irresistible opportunity an urgent tone, which meant that I had to set aside my tickets to the New Yorker Festival.
At Symphony Space, the crowd gathered in the lobby in a semi-social manner, with that style of Indian nonchalanace sometimes interpreted as chaos. The guard was provoked to speak out: "All those here for the In'nian Show, step to your left!" she cried. But there was no-one there who wasn't, although everyone shuffled a tad to their left and eventully lined up. Time was on hold as the audience drifted in and the musicians, including Utpal Ghoshal on tabla, Jayanta Banerjee on sitar, Debasish Sarkar and a beautiful young woman who sang wih soft precision, treated the meandering house to a sophisticated warm up.
Normally, I rail against lecture demonstrations, but here the lecture was pithy and the demonstration not to be missed. For his first appearance onstage, Pt. Maharaj wore a a fine golden necklace over his pale cream Akbari jama, tied on the right, embellished with Benarasi brocade borders, and cinched with a matching patka over white churidars. He explained that nature/God gives us the elemental heartbeat wherein is derived the teen taal or sixteen beat measure, upon which all things are based. No matter how complex the variations we engage in, we return to the first beat, One, to complete a cycle. Because the heartbeat responds to emotional changes and physical movement with its own variations, he said, the emotive and descriptive components of a narrative can be closely depicted through fine rhythmic variation. This he demonstrated briefly with his ghunghat (bells), even portraying silence and calm with a low rustle denoting something like a Brownian movement, punctuated with low level events that barely scraped the narrative threshold.

Then came robust improvisations on teen taal, followed by superbly enunciated narratives, original bohls he had composed, depicting episodes in the life of Krishna. Saswati Sen, one of Guru Maharaj's primary disciples, and a famous teacher herself, opened her presentation using a time cycle of nine and a half beats, then used various similar complexities to render Valmiki's highly emotional story concerning the seduction of Ahalya, wife of the Maharishi Gautam, by the demi-god Lord Indra in disguise, followed by her punishment by ossification and subsequent rescue by Lord Rama.

By then,
I was seeing
for the first time
my own Kathak guru, Prahlad Das,
had meant by his mild but constant admonition, "Arms like snakes, hands like butter, and remember that each of your bells represents a star in the sky."

The second half was all performance, and presented Mahua Shankar (below, center), whose extraordinary duet with Saswati Sen showed how soon the mantle would be passed to her.
Maharaj highlighted the interplay of tabalchi and dancer before launching into tales from the Udhav Geeta, in which Krishna tells his friend Udhav stories of his youth. In the final piece, set in Raga Kirwani, Saswati Sen and Mahua Shankar again filled the entire stage, their brilliant long ghagras awhirl over bright churidars that matched their cholis, demonstrating amazing coordination and counterpoint, beautiful balance and sinuously suggested mudras. There was, nevertheless, an additional, idiomatic subtlety in Saswati Sen's every movement that I could barely catch, let alone describe. This level of subtlety was still to develop in Mahua Shankar's sparkling peformance, despite her virtuosity and fluid grace, but it will surely follow. Perhaps one just has to live that much longer to know time and timing as such an old friend.

Something had possessed me,
at the end, to watch the finale of dazzling footwork by all three from the aisle, through binoculars, the better to make a swift exit and chase down to Chelsea. There, I found T.Coraghessan Boyle, poet-in-perpetuity of the Mid-Hudson Valley (Californian though he might be nowadays), wearing a choker of beads much shorter than Maharaj's over a bright T-shirt and an unsalted butter colored jacket. He was explaining to Andrea Lee and everybody else at Cedar Lake Dance Studios that his writing life followed a certain rhythm, which made him intersperse novel writing with short story telling. Andrea Lee, who wore black, with turquoise pendant earrings, demurred and said that only short stories offered the possbility of perfection-- something like a bohl, thumri or a gat, I suppose...

pictures from: , and