Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for June, 2012

CD review/ Apocalyptic Love – Slash

Apocalyptic Love/ Slash, featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators

Genre: Rock

Dik Hayd Records-EMI Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

IT’S been 25 years since guitarist Slash barged on to the global spotlight with the Guns N’ Roses debut album ‘Appetite For Destruction’, featuring the anthems ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. Overnight, he earned the reputation of being one of the best guitarists ever — something which he’s maintained till now.

Though Slash is identified most with his GNR days, he’s been up to a variety of things since he quit the band in 1996, first concentrating on his side project Slash’s Snakepit, which he’d formed a couple of years earlier, and later forming the group Velvet Revolver. In 2010, he released his eponymous solo album, featuring star guests like Ozzy Osbourne, Chris Cornell, Dave Grohl, Kid Rock and Iggy Pop.

The guitar god’s latest release ‘Apocalyptic Love’ is being touted as his second solo album, though the cover title ‘Slash, featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators’ makes it sound like a new band altogether. Kennedy, known for his work with Alter Bridge, chips in with vocals, while drummer Brent Fritz and bassist Todd Kerns firm up the rhythm section.

What’s interesting, of course, is that for the first time, Slash doesn’t employ any GNR musician. Snakepit featured the band’s drummer Matt Sorum and rhythm guitarist Gilby Clarke, Velvet Revolver had Sorum and bassist Duff McKagan, and the first solo album had guest appearances by McKagan, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler.

Expectedly, this is an out-and-out Slash album, showcasing his enormous skills. Each song has a noteworthy riff, and fans will naturally go ga-ga over the consistent axemanship. Sound-wise, this is a typical hard rock album, with most songs sticking to the 80s schoolbook, with obvious influences of Deep Purple, Whitesnake, Black Sabbath, Alice In Chains, Van Halen and needless to say, GNR.

Of the songs, the clear favourite is ‘Anastasia’, which begins with an acoustic flamenco intro, and contains some of the most awesome guitarwork Slash has ever displayed. Surely, this has all the makings of a rock classic, and in a world where fans remember anthems more than intricate album details, this should remain popular for a few years to come.

Other winners are the ballad ‘Far and Away’, where Kennedy sounds real good, the melodic and infectious ‘No More Heroes’, the disillusionment-filled ‘Standing In The Sun’, which has a splendid guitar coda, and ‘You’re a Lie’, which talks of being cheated, using hard-hitting lines like ‘I’m fragile but I’m not a fool, and I won’t hear a word from you’.

In fact, a sense of darkness pervades many songs, from the wah-wah-guitar-spiced title track to the punk-meets-thrash number ‘One Last Thrill’ and the self-pitying ‘Not For Me’, where Kennedy sings: ‘This is not for me, no, this life is not for me, no, this is not for me any more.’

Much as the album has many highs, one also finds a lot of routine stuff like ‘Halo’, ‘We Will Roam’ and the weak closing piece ‘Shots Fired’. Vocalist Kennedy seems to suit the compositions, and he might be your typical rock singer, but clearly lacks that X-Factor possessed by the likes of Ian Gillan, Ronnie James Dio or Axl Rose.

In the overall picture, that shouldn’t matter, though. Fans will specially look out for Slash’s work, and he’s in supreme form throughout. When it comes to being innovative and playing spitfire spells, he clearly displays an ‘appetite for construction’. ‘Apocalyptic Love’ is a perfect way to celebrate his silver jubilee.

 RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic


CD review/ Thick As A Brick 2 – Ian Anderson

Thick As A Brick 2/ Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson

Genre: Progressive folk-rock

Chrysalis Records-EMI Music/ Rs 395

Rating: **** 1/2

REALLY don’t mind if you sit this one out. My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout. I may make you feel but I can’t make you think, how nervous I was dreading Ian Anderson’s ‘Thick As A Brick 2’ would stink.

And why not? The original, released by Anderson’s band Jethro Tull in 1972, has been among by all-time favourite recordings across genres. As a progressive-rock creation, as a compositional masterpiece, as a single-song release, as the mother-turned-grandmother of all concept albums, it has earned a unique place in rock music history.

Moreover, as someone who’s literally grown up on Tull, I’m pretty obviously biased towards the band’s 1970s albums. Much as Anderson tried thereafter, and much as the Grammys suddenly realised in 1988 that such a band existed, nothing can beat the brilliance and timelessness of a ‘Thick As A Brick’, ‘Aqualung’, ‘Heavy Horses’, ‘Benefit’ or ‘Songs From The Wood’. Ah, spin me down the years, and the days of my youth.

And what’s with the great idea of producing sequels anyway? Modern-day hip-hop is full of them. And among the follow-ups to classic albums, Meatloaf did ‘Bat Out of Hell II’ and Mike Oldfield came up with parts II and III of his path-breaking ‘Tubular Bells’. They all paled in comparison. The only such project that was worth the trouble was perhaps Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’, a follow-up to his extra-popular ‘Harvest’. But otherwise, sequels seem to go better with movies than with music.

And, talking of this latest effort, why is Tull’s long-standing and outstanding guitarist Martin Barre missing from the line-up? Is Anderson just cashing in on the popularity and brand-name of ‘Thick As A Brick’ by coming out with a half-hearted Part Two? Has he ‘fallen on hard times’? Or is it a result of the ‘dark ages’ we live in musically?

I shuddered to imagine what TAAB2, as it’s being called, would sound like. My God! I’d rather have spent time sitting on a park bench, or moving in the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath, or bringing you songs from the wood to make you feel much better than you could know, or just feeding some heavy horses in acres wild.

WONDRIN’ aloud, how we feel today, I can only say that all my doubts were cleared after the first two hearings of TAAB2. My first reaction was that it definitely doesn’t make you shake your head, and say it’s a shame. After a few listens, I concluded that this is an absolute beauty, a ‘sweet dream’ come true. The CD plays on my system day in and night out, and like all my favourite Tull albums, I discover something new each time I hear it.

Guess there’s ‘a time for everything’. Well, ‘nothing is easy’, and matching the reputation of a classic is certainly tough. But yes, TAAB2 is the closest one can get to vintage Tull, blending progressive rock with ‘root-to-branches’ Scottish and Celtic folk, and a few doses of jazz and classically-inspired melodies. It has that trademark 70s sound and, yet, bubbles with a contemporary flavour.

‘Life is a long song’, and Anderson seems to have come full circle with this one. This is the Jethro Tull ‘we used to know’.

How similar is it to the original? For starters, a few common licks are taken directly from ‘Thick As A Brick’, but that’s done only in passing, to retain the theme and make the connection. There are references to earlier songs like ‘A Passion Play’ and ‘Locomotive Breath’, but that again, is more in fun or self-parody.  And while the 1972 album was credited to this fictitious character called Gerald Bostock, the new set talks of what all Gerald could have done in these 40 years.  Even the cover concept is based on the same principle, though the newspaper St Cleve Chronicle has now been replaced by the ‘velvet green’ masthead of the web newsletter After all, how long should one be ‘living in the past’?

The similarities end there. As a musical creation, TAAB2 is mostly new, fresh and intoxicating. While ‘Thick As A Brick’ was one single 44-minute song, this one has 17 numbers, most of them under four minutes. A total of 53 minutes of ‘passion play’. And while there’s a good mix of the acoustic and electric with a routine instrumental thrown in (‘Pebbles Instrumental’), what’s new is the way Anderson uses spoken monologues at regular intervals.

The album is divided into two unequal parts — called Divergence (which talks of what would happen to Gerald if he had become a banker, a homeless person, a military man, a chorister, or just an ordinary man) and Convergence (which describes his ‘destiny, fate, karma, kismet’). And while the songs flow from one to another, personal favourites include the uptempo, guitar-driven ‘Banker Bets, Banker Wins’, the acoustic gem ‘Adrift and Dumbfounded’, the very typical Tull piece ‘Old School Song’,  the orchestrally innovative ‘Wootton Bassett Town’, the folksy ‘Give Till It Hurts’, the punchy ‘Shunt and Shuffle’ (reminiscent of ‘Locomotive Breath’) and the eight-minute charmer ‘A Change In Horses’, which uses influences of Arabic, Oriental and Indian music too.

Among the minstrels in the TAAB2 gallery, John O’Hara (Hammond organ, piano and keyboards), David Goodier (bass, the unique-sounding glockenspiel), Peter Judge (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Ryan O’Donnell (additional vocals) chip in well. But the real stars are drummer Scott Hammond, who sounds very much like Tull’s Barriemore Barlow, and guitarist Florian Opahle, who comes as a perfect replacement for Martin. Florian has taken instructions from the great jazz guitarist Al Di Meola, and the class shows here.

As for Anderson, one may argue that his voice has changed a bit, but the truth is that he’s adapted well, without experimenting too much with his range, and largely staying away from his archetypal syllable-stretching mannerisms. As a conceptualiser, composer and flautist, he’s an ever-brimming ‘cup of wonder’ who still has the charm of the Pied Piper. He’ll be turning 65 this August, but TAAB2 proves that he’s never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Bouree!

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Zamaane yaad aaye: Goodbye, Mehdi Hassan-saab

BACK in October 2000, at a private mehfil at a Marine Drive flat, legendary singer Mehdi Hassan was part of the audience. The gathering was organised by Mumbai businessman Saurabh Daftary, and the performers included Talat Aziz and Jaspinder Narula. And though his doctor had advised Mehdi-saab not to sing, he couldn’t resist. He rendered just a couple of shers from Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-Nadaan’ and Ahmed Faraaz’s ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’, but they were enough to mesmerise the 40-odd people present. I was one of the lucky few.

Today, it’s difficult to believe the Pakistani ghazal great is no more. Though he had been unwell for a long time, and was critical earlier this year, the sudden news of his death on June 13 has come as a shock to millions of fans. To state the obvious, his passing marks the end of an era.

Personally, no other singer has moved me as much. Over the years, there have been many other favourites from the Indian sub-continent, but when it comes to hero worship and sheer obsession, Mehdi Hassan tops the list. And the reason for this has much more to do than with the texture, mellifluousness and purity of his heavenly voice. The brilliance of his compositions, the manner in which he adapted classical raags, the depth of the poetry he chose, his sense of ‘laya’ (rhythm), the way he expressed emotions and the way he enunciated words all contributed equally to his uniqueness.

If I were to describe my experience of listening to Mehdi Hassan, I would divide it into two phases — pre-2000 mehfil, and post-2000 mehfil. For after that event, I was converted overnight from an admirer to a devotee, from a fan to a fanatic.

It took a good 16 years for the transformation. My earliest memories of hearing Mehdi-saab go back to 1984, when I had bought few records from a friend. Most of them were English LPs, and I had picked up this Mehdi Hassan compilation as I was listening to a lot of ghazals too, mainly by Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Ghulam Ali, Rajendra-Nina Mehta and Talat Aziz. The ghazal craze was in full swing in India.

The first song that struck me was Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s ‘Mohabbat karne waale kam na honge’. The sheer depth of his voice blew me away, and for a few days, I listened only to that ghazal. Very soon, other songs took over — Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Ranjish hi sahi’, Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-nadaan’, Qateel Shifai’s ‘Zindagi mein to sabhi pyaar kiya karte hain’, Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Patta patta boota boota’, Saleem Gilani’s ‘Phool hi phool khil uthey hain’, Wafaa Roomani’s ‘Sataa sataa ke hamein’, Masroor Anwar’s ‘Mujhe tum nazar se gira toh rahe ho’, a few more.

Listening to Mehdi Hassan those days was very different from what it turned out to be later.  I would enjoy the songs more for the way they were sung, and for the tunes. But because of my limited exposure to or knowledge of pure Urdu, I wouldn’t follow many words. There was no Internet to refer to for meanings or translations, and I knew little about the importance of the poet in the creation of a ghazal.

Like many from my age group, I would spend most of my time listening to rock or jazz. But after a hard day’s work, or maybe after a cocktail party, I would switch over to Mehdi Hassan or eventually Begum Akhtar, whom I first heard in 1986.

For many years, I would play the same Mehdi Hassan compilations, with a limited number of songs. Some newer favourites had come in, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Baat karni mujhe mushkil’, Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Ab ke hum bichde’ and ‘Shola tha jal bujha hoon’, Asghar Saleem’s ‘Gulshan gulshan shola-e-gul ki’, Tasleem Fazli’s ‘Rafta rafta’ and ‘Khuda kare ki mohabbat mein’, and Himayat Ali Shair’s ‘Nawazish karam’.

By this time, I had begun understanding the nuances of the genre — the difference between a ghazal, nazm, geet and ‘rubaai’ (quatrain), the opening sher ‘matla’, the concluding sher ‘makta’ (where the writer often takes his name or ‘takhallus’), the use of metre in writing and composition, and the way rhymes are created using ‘kaafiya’ and ‘radeef’.

My shift to music journalism with Mid-Day newspaper in 1995 led to interactions with many ghazal singers, and when I told Rajendra Mehta about my limitations with the language, he gifted me two simple books which would explain many ghazals. Soon, I began to re-discover many Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar songs, as I started looking at them from the extra perspective of sheer lyrical beauty.

However, barring a few additions like Raza Tirmizi’s ‘Bhooli bisri chand umeedein’ and Munir Niazi’s ‘Kaise kaise log’, my Mehdi Hassan collection was restricted to some 20-odd songs, with ‘Zindagi mein toh sabhi’ and ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’ being played repeatedly for months. The October 2000 mehfil made things even better.

Interestingly, it was by sheer chance that I attended that session. Talat Aziz had a show at the Oberoi where Mehdi Hassan was a guest, and knowing I was a fan of the maestro, invited me to Saurabh’s place. The evening was a dream come true. But strangely, I was so much in awe of my hero that I didn’t have the courage to ask him for an interview. Talat introduced us, and I was totally speechless, just touching his feet and basking in the momentary magic.

It took me a few weeks to recover, and even as I re-listened to my earlier favourites, I had decided to become a ‘collector’ of Mehdi Hassan recordings. Very soon, I was buying cassettes or CDs even if only one song out of 10 was new to me.

One of the treasures I picked up those days was ‘Kehna Usey’, written by the young poet Farhat Shahzad, who I met a few times later. The album was an absolute masterpiece, containing gems like ‘Kya toota hai andar andar’, ‘Dekhna ukka kanakhiyon se’, ‘Komplen phir phoot aayein’, ‘Faisla tumko bhool jaane ka’,’Ek bas tu hi nahin’, ‘Khuli jo aankh’ and ‘Tanha tanha mat sochakar’. The two of them later released the album ‘Sada-e-ishq’ in 2002, but sadly, ill-health had affected Mehdi-saab’s voice by then.

Over the next few months, there were regular showers of classics I hadn’t heard. Morning and night, I would listen to Saleem Kausar’s ‘Main khayal hoon kisi aur ka’, Faiz’s ‘Aaye kuch abr’, Ghalib’s ‘Daayam padha hua’ and ‘Arz-e-niyaz-e-ishq ke kaabil nahin raha’, Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Dekh toh dil ke jaan se uthta hai’, Momin’s ‘Navak andaaz’, Sagar Siddiqui’s ‘Charagh-e-toor’ or Qateel Shifai’s ‘Tu ne yeh phool jo zulfon mein sajaa rakha hai’.

The collection has kept expanding ever since, with Hasrat Mohani’s ‘Roshan jamaal-e-yaar’ and ‘Kaise chupaoon raaz-e-gham’, Parveen Shakir’s ‘Ku ba ku phail gayi’, Habib Jalil’s ‘Dil ki baat labon par laakar’, Khatir Ghazanvi’s ‘Jab us zulf ki baat chali’, Ehsaan Danish’s ‘Yun na mil mujhse’ and Qateel Shifai’s ‘Yeh mojeza bhi’ (whose Jagjit Singh version I had loved). Older Pakistani film songs like ‘Apnon ne gham diye’, ‘Duniya kisi ke pyaar mein’, ‘Pyaar bhare do sharmeele nain’ and ‘Ek husn ki devi’ have also delighted me, though unfortunately, I don’t know the names of the lyricists.

The beauty about Mehdi Hassan’s songs is that one never tires of them. In fact, the more one hears them, the more enchanting and intoxicating they get. And when you hear them by surprise, it’s an altogether different experience – for instance, while watching ‘7 Khoon Maaf’ in a cinema hall, I was suddenly jumping in my seat when ‘Dekh toh dil se jaan’ was playing to the backdrop of an Irfan Khan scene.

Indeed, what Mehdi Hassan has left behind is a treasure trove. Each word he has sung dazzles like a diamond solitaire. The music world has lost a real gem and one of its truly golden voices, but his music will sparkle forever.

CD review/ Some Nights – Fun

Some Nights/ Fun

Genre: Alternative pop-rock

EMI Music/ Rs 395

Rating: ****

AFTER getting this CD from EMI Music’s Mumbai office, I didn’t bother to open it for two weeks. From the cover, I thought a strange-sounding album called ‘Some Nights’ by a stranger-sounding band named Fun would be some run-of-the-mill bubblegum pop or a poorly-made techno recording meant to be heard with 200 kg cotton in one’s ears.

But I was really hungry for some new music, and soon, Googled ‘Some Nights Fun’. Immediately, I was surprised to learn that it was an American alternative rock band. Curious, I tried it out, and my first reaction was to find huge influences of 70s and 80s acts like Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, Elton John,  Electric Light Orchestra and Men At Work, blended with a contemporary alternative pop-rock flavour that makes it sound very ‘now’.

Ever since, Fun has been regularly playing on my system. The Queen influence is very much there in the opening title track, and keeps cropping up regularly. And though it would be unfair to compare lead vocalist Nate Ruess with the great Freddie, his voice definitely has a freshness and flexibility that makes it endearing. Add to that some catchy tunes, 70s-meets-80s-meets-90s-meets -2000s melodies, charming harmonies and humorous lyrics, and this is clearly one of the better albums of 2012.

The two-part title song is the clear highlight. Part 1, called ‘Some Nights Intro’, has a neat piano line, and theatrical, operatic backing vocals, with Ruess getting into the high notes effortlessly. Very, very Queen. The main part has strong drums and infectious choruses, and here, the instrumentation takes on a Paul Simon mood.

The popular ‘We Are Young’ starts with marching band drums, a vocal intro clearly influenced by Simon & Garfunkel, a chorus reminiscent of Queen and a catchy hook throughout. ‘Carry On’ starts with a melodic vocal and piano, and gets into lines like “If you’re lost in a zone or you’re sinking like a stone, carry on; May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground, carry on’. A sizzling guitar riff completes the song.

‘It Gets Better’ is probably not one of the better bits here. Though it’s an uptempo, percussion-heavy piece with an 80s pop feel, it sort of jars, and seems a bit out of place. But ‘Why Am I The One?’ is a brilliant ballad, with smartly-done harmonies on the lines ‘Go on, go on, go on, if you were thinking that the worst is yet to come, why am the one always packing up my stuff?’ The strings at the end are super.

‘All Alone’ is a brisk piece with smooth synthesisers, and marvellous arrangements.  On ‘All Alright’, the vocals go ‘It’s all alright, I guess it’s all alright, I got nothing left inside of my chest, but it’s all alright.” Nice, sing-along tune.

‘One Foot’ is a bit cacophonous — too many vocals, horns, synthesisers and drums happening at the same time. ‘Stars’ is a wonderful composition, with a nice hook, a hummable chorus line and pleasant guitar, but one wonders why they have used so much auto-tune to vary Ruess’s voice. Finally, the bonus track ‘Out On The Town’ has tongue-in-cheek lines like ‘I was out on the town, so I came to your window last night, I tried not to throw stones but I wanted to come inside’.

All in all, an album one can hear repeatedly. And now that I’ve been listening to it so regularly, I did a bit of Net research, and discovered that while Ruess is at the forefront, Jack Antonoff and Andrew Dost have played all the instruments between themselves. The group had earlier released an album called ‘Aim & Ignite’, which I’d love to hear. Till I find that, I plan to have fun with Fun on ‘most nights’ and not just ‘some nights’.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic

Jazzmatazz in Mumbai


Artiste: Bill Evans with Ranjit Barot, Marc Guillermont and Etienne Mbappe

Venue and date: Tata Theatre, Mumbai

Genre: Jazz

Rating: *****

WITH two big acts, the past week has been a bonanza for Mumbai’s jazz lovers. On June 6, guitarist John Abercombie and his trio played at the St Andrews auditorium. Over the next two days, saxophonist Bill Evans led a brilliant quartet at Blue Frog and at the Tata Theatre.

The Abercombie concert, organised by Sandeep Chowta Projects, was barely advertised. In fact, even this blogger found out about it when a friend posted on Facebook mid-way through the show that he was enjoying it. What a miss.

In contrast, the Evans gig at Tata was well-publicised by the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) through newspaper ads. Naturally, it attracted a packed house, and reports of the Blue Frog appearance the previous night were also favourable.

American Bill Evans — not to be confused with the great pianist of the same name — was joined by Indian drummer Ranjit Barot, French guitarist Marc Guillermont and Cameroonian bassist Etienne Mbappe. And for the 90 minutes or so that they shared the stage, each musician played brilliantly, both in the group interactions and in the solo passages.

All of them are, of course, highly qualified artistes. Tenor and soprano saxophonist Evans joined legendary composer Miles Davis in the early 80s, and has played with the likes of pianist Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Randy Brecker and the group Medeski Martin & Wood, besides rock giants Mick Jagger, Ian Anderson and the Allman Brothers Band. His delivery had shades of sax maestros Sonny Rollins’ and Joe Henderson’s style, with a contemporary flavour.

Guillermont’s playing seemed quite influenced by rock and heavy metal, and he came up with some dazzling solos. He’s recorded an album paying tribute to rock star Frank Zappa, and has been active on both the jazz and film music fronts. And while his phrasing was very jazz-rock, he looked every bit a rock star.

Mbappe was a super-treat to watch. In what was undoubtedly one of the best bass-playing displays India has witnessed, he charmed the crowd with his deft finger movements, stunning improvisation and melodic tone. Having been a regular with both the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and John McLaughlin’s band The 4th Dimension, and also being part of many world music projects, he had a unique and graceful style, specially on those two solos after the break.

Throughout the show, Barot played wonderfully. One of India’s most accomplished drummers, he’s really moved up in the world jazz and fusion scene during the past couple of years, releasing the brilliant album ‘Bada Boom’ with an extra-talented array of guest artistes, and then touring with McLaughlin’s The 4th Dimension last year.

One didn’t get the names of all pieces, but among those announced. Evans’ compositions ‘Sweet Tea’ and ‘Snap Dragon’ and Barot’s ‘Tempest’ were fabulous. So were the opening number and the first post-break tune, which brimmed with energy and spontaneity, and the African song sung by Mbappe, which was beautifully constructed. The encore ‘Maula Re Maula’ provided a perfect wind-up, though by then, many people had already left thinking the concert had ended.

The only jarring moments, one felt, came because Barot overdid the Indian percussion ‘bols’ (spoken mnemonic syllables). They sounded nice in the beginning, but seemed a bit forced when done repeatedly. It’s become quite a fad among Indian percussionists to render these ‘bols’ impromptu, and while they appear perfect in Indian percussion and fusion jams, their sudden arrival in a jazz concert seems like an intrusion.

Overall, though, it was an absolutely memorable gig, and it’s really heartening that Mumbai keeps attracting such international jazz talent at frequent intervals, whether it is for the Jazz Utsav festival, the Ustad Allarakha tribute on February 3 or at one-off gigs.

Over the past seven or eight years, we’ve seen guitarists Scott Henderson, Allan Holdsworth, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, and Frank Gambale, saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd, singer Al Jarreau, violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, pianists-keyboardists Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Bugge Wesseltoft, bassists Stanley Clarke, Dominique di Piazza, Jonas Hellborg and Anthony Jackson, and drummers Billy Cobham, Simon Phillips and Virgil Donati, among others. And yes, McLaughlin has played a few times with the Indo-fusion outfit Remember Shakti.

On June 14, Dutch jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans will perform with his band Gatecrash at Blue Frog. With Sandeep Chowta Projects consistently bringing talented acts for a while, and the NCPA promising to increase its jazz fare, all this sounds exciting. If only more corporate organisations understand that there is a fairly sizeable audience for the genre in Mumbai and get more actively involved in sponsoring such shows, it will be music to the city’s jazz ears.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent; **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world

The rise and stagnancy of Norah Jones

WHEN Geethali Shankar aka Norah Jones burst onto the scene with her 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, her sound was as fresh as morning dew. The voice was distinct, the writing simple and effective, and the tunes had a nice piano-backed easy listening feel and jazz flavour.

The world suddenly discovered that Norah was the daughter of Indian sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, and lauded her for making it big without his guidance or backing. The next year, she was the darling of the Grammys, bagging five awards, including the coveted Album of the Year. The numbers ‘Don’t Know Why’, ‘Feelin’ The Same Way’ and the title tune were played everywhere.

Last month, Norah released her fifth solo album ‘Little Broken Hearts’. Prior to the launch, there was a lot of hype around the fact that it was being produced and co-written by Danger Mouse, the extra-talented wiz who’s the brain behind the neo-soul act Gnarls Barkley, hip-hop venture Danger Doom and indie-rock outfit Broken Bells, and who has worked with the Black Keys, Gorillaz and Beck, and also created that masterpiece of an album ‘Dark Night Of The Soul’ with Sparklehorse.

The collaboration with Mr Versatile Himself sounded exciting, and many of us expected Norah in a brand-new avatar. Her look had a makeover, all right, and she’s looking really gorgeous. But after a few listens, one arrived at the conclusion that both Norah and Danger Mouse could have done much, much more. Clearly, the Mouse wasn’t Dangerous enough.

Yes, the new 12-track set has some good songs (‘Say Goodbye’, ‘4 Broken Hearts’, ‘Happy Pills’) and is excellently-produced (‘After the Fall’, ‘All A Dream’). Nice to listen to, definitely, but overall, it offers nothing new — the same old style, probably pepped up like a different kind of pepper on a pepperoni pizza.

Has Norah Jones stagnated? Being a huge fan of her earlier efforts, one would say yes. And the reason perhaps is that she’s been over-over-prolific. While five studio albums in 10 years doesn’t sound like one hell of an output, the truth is that she’s been involved in so many side projects, either with her country band The Little Willies, or guesting with legends like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson and Herbie Hancock, or with contemporary biggies like Foo Fighters, Outkast and Ryan Adams.

Some of these interactions have been extraordinary — her rendition of the country standard ‘Here We Go Again’ with Ray Charles in 2004 was a highlight of the latter’s Grammy-winning album ‘Genius Loves Company’, and three of her duets with Willie Nelson (‘Wurlitzer Prize’, ‘Dreams Come True’ and ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’) have been nominated for the Grammy. However, too much work at the same time could probably have affected her output as a solo singer, which she primarily is.

If one looks at her career progression, her second 2004 solo album ‘Feels Like Home’ was just the ideal follow-up, with beauties like ‘Sunrise’, ‘What Am I To You?’ and ‘In The Morning’. It sold really well too. So did the next album ‘Not Too Late’, with ‘Thinking About You’ and the title song dominating the airwaves. Reviews were, however, mixed, as Norah essentially stuck to the same formula.

The follow-up ‘The Fall’, featuring ‘Chasing Pirates’ and ‘Young Blood’, saw a little more experimentation in sound, but with her singing style not changing much, audiences felt she was getting repetitive. In fact, it was between Albums 3 and 4 that some critics named her ‘Snorah Jones’ — which was actually unfair.

This is where one thought her idea to team up with Danger Mouse was a masterstroke. But rather than concentrating on this album totally, Norah chose to be associated with the second Little Willies album ‘For The Good Times’, which was released just four months before this one.

Norah didn’t write on the Willies recording, and did some wonderful versions of Dolly Parton’s ‘Joulene’, ‘Willie Nelson’s ‘Permanently Lonely’, Kris Kristofferson’s ‘For The Good Times’, Johnny Cash’s ‘Wipe Open Road’ and Loretta Lynn’s ‘Fist City’. But perhaps, the pressure of simultaneously working on two major projects made a difference.

A factor affecting Norah’s current output is her early overwhelming stardom. Like Alanis Morisette, Alicia Keys, India.Arie and Susan Boyle, her dream debut has forced most listeners to compare her newer work with the first hit. But think of it this way — if ‘The Fall’ or ‘Little Broken Hearts’ had been her debut, we may have reacted differently, instead of cribbing that these albums marked her ‘fall’ or left us a ‘little broken-hearted’.

Of course, it’s easy to criticise Norah Jones, simply by comparing everything she does now with what she did in ‘Come Away With Me’. The truth is that today, she is a household name, popular across age groups. While youngsters identify with her youth, looks and innocence, the elders are enamoured by her style of composing and singing —laidback, sensuous and intoxicating. She’s bridged the worlds of jazz and pop, and very few singers sound like her.

Maybe Norah should focus on one thing at a time. Maybe she should be a little more selective, doing whatever she does really well, instead of trying to please everybody by keeping up with all varieties of Joneses.

Majaw aa gaya


Artiste: Lou Majaw & Friends

Venue and date: Blue Frog Mumbai, May 31 2012

Genre: Rock, folk-rock

Rating: ****

FOR those who don’t follow Hindi, the headline is a pun on the sentence ‘Majaa aa gaya’, which means ‘We had fun’. Surely, those who attended Lou Majaw’s concert at Mumbai’s Blue Frog on May 31 returned home with a similar sentiment. As expected, the gig was brilliant, and what’s more, Majaw was performing in Mumbai after a long time.

Based in the north-east Indian city of Shillong, Majaw is one of India’s most-respected and talented rock musicians. He’s been on the scene since the mid-60s, and has gained a reputation of being a Dylan specialist, as his concerts are filled with the folk-rock hero’s songs. From 1972 onwards, he has held an annual festival to celebrate Dylan’s birthday on May 24, thus attracting a lot of Indian and international attention.

Now at 64-plus, Majaw exudes the energy of a 30-year-old. He always wears shorts and T-shirts, and with his long hair which has now thinned a bit and greyed, looks every bit a rock star. On stage, he moves like one too, swinging like a cross between Chuck Berry and Mick Jagger. When he sings or plays his guitar, you’re amazed that he’s self-taught.

On Thursday night, Majaw began with a few solo numbers, including the folk anthem ‘500 Miles’ and Pete Seeger’s ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’. Then, his band came along, and a majority of what followed was vintage Dylan. Over the next two hours — 10-minute break included —he played classic Dylan tracks like ‘Is Your Love In Vain?’, ‘License to Kill’, ‘Lay Lady Lay’, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Blowing In The Wind’, ‘Forever Young’, ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’, ‘Just Like A Woman’, ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35’.

Accompanied by his tight lead guitar-bass-drums band, Majaw improvised on many songs, adding bluesier or peppier solos. Guitarist Barry was a treat to hear, and had some fantastic riffs through the show, including on some non-Dylan fare.

Having seen Majaw a few times in more open Bangalore venues, one felt the raised Blue Frog stage restricted his movements a bit — he couldn’t come into the crowd, like he’d have loved to do. Moreover, a fever may have prevented him from taking off his shirt in typical fashion.

The audience, too, was much lesser than one expected. It wasn’t spilling over the sides, as one witnessed when Indian Ocean, Advaita or Swarathma played at the same place. But that’s probably because those bands have younger audiences, who may not really be into Dylan or old-time Indian rock heroes. For whatever reasons, even the pre-event buzz seemed inadequate — the huge vinyl near the entrance mentioned all programmes of the week, except  this one.

The previous time Majaw was in Mumbai, he received the Jack Daniels-Rolling Stone India ‘Years Of Excellence’ award. For someone who’s been at the forefront of Indian rock music for over four decades, that was a well-deserved recognition. Hopefully, he’ll perform in the city regularly from now on. To return to the headline, Mumbai-ites would be definitely happy to say ‘Majaw aa gaya’ (Majaw has come) more often.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent: **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world

Tag Cloud