Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for July, 2014

Charlie Haden and the other jazz bass masters



LIKE many people from my generation, I first got attracted to jazz bass guitar through the magical fingers of Jaco Pastorius of the band Weather Report. Very soon, I started appreciating Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever, and most of my early listening focused around the electric bass.

As I got deeper into jazz and began attending concerts regularly, I started getting exposed to some really talented musicians who played the upright bass or double bass. The whole image of them standing with an instrument larger than them and yet playing with such control was fascinating.

Charlie Haden, who passed away last week, was one of the double bassists who had a major impact on my jazz listening. It began with his works with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, especially on the landmark 1959 album ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’. Then, I heard his collaborations with pianist Keith Jarrett and guitarist Pat Metheny – with the latter, ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ remains a classic. Another favourite was Haden’s ‘Nocturne’, which won the 2002 Grammy for best Latin jazz album.

Haden’s death marks a huge loss to the world of bass-playing. Clearly, he was one of the most prolific and versatile practitioners of the instrument, literally making it sing.

Over the years, the world has heard numerous bass greats. It was because of these masters that bass playing earned a respect of its own, especially in a world where audiences are largely more attracted to the saxophone, trumpet, piano or guitar. While it would be difficult to draw a list of greatest bassists, I am listing 20 whom I have personally admired. While the first eight were masters of the double bass, the other 12 have specialised in the electric bass. Either way, they have been true champions.

1. Ray Brown – Known for his extensive work with pianist Oscar Peterson and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Brown was a huge name from the late 1940s to the 1960s. He also played the cello

2. Charles Mingus – A highly influential composer, bandleader and double bassist, Mingus had a style that blended jazz with gospel and classical music. His album ‘The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady’ remains a jazz classic

3. Charlie Haden – Besides his collaborations with Coleman, Jarrett and Metheny, mentioned above, Haden was known for his work with the Liberation Music Orchestra, a group he co-led with pianist Carla Bley

4. Scott LaFaro – Best known for his seminal work with pianist Bill Evans and his trio, LaFaro died tragically in a road accident at the age of 25. His professional career lasted only six years, but he redefined jazz bass-playing

5. Paul Chambers – Another genius who died young, of tuberculosis at 33, Chambers played with many greats including trumpeters Miles Davis and Donald Byrd, saxophonists John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, guitarist Wes Montgomery and pianist Wynton Kelly

6. Ron Carter – One of the most recorded bassists ever, Carter has appeared in 2,500 albums. His work with Miles Davis, pianists Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard have been hugely admired. He is an acclaimed cellist too

7. Dave Holland – A Britisher, Holland first earned a name playing at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, London, before he moved to the US. Besides many albums with Miles Davis, he has recorded with keyboardist Chick Corea and saxophonist Joe Henderson, among others

8. Christian McBride – One of those musicians who’s adept at both upright bass and electric bass, McBride has played with many artistes including guitarist John McLaughlin, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist McCoy Tyner and singer Diana Krall

9. Marcus Miller – One of the foremost electric bass players, Miller has accompanied Miles Davis, Hancock, singer Luther Vandross, saxophonist David Sanborn and others. He also plays clarinet, keyboards, saxophone and guitar

10. Jaco Pastorius – The king of the electric bass, Pastorius was best known for his work with Weather Report, besides numerous solo projects. He died at the age of 35 after slipping into a coma following an altercation with a club bouncer

11. Stanley Clarke – Though adept at upright bass too, Clarke made his mark on the electric bass as part of the group Return to Forever with Chick Corea. A highlight of his career was the album ‘The Rite of Strings’, where he plays acoustic bass, with Al DiMeola on acoustic guitar and Jean Luc Ponty on acoustic violin

12. John Patitucci – Another musician who’s proficient at both double and electric bass. His best known stint was with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and Akoustic Band, and he’s also played with blues legend BB King, rock group Bon Jovi and popular artiste Sting

13. Victor Wooten – A hugely talented bassist, Wooten has played extensively with banjo maestro Bela Fleck and his group the Flecktones. He was also part of a bass supergroup with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller

14. Jonas Hellborg – The Swedish bassist was part of the reunited Mahavishnu Orchestra in the 1980s. He has collaborated with Indian musicians like sarangi maestro Ustad Sultan Khan, tabla player Fazal Qureshi and kanjira exponent V Selvaganesh

15. Steve Swallow – One of the first double bassists to shift entirely to the electric bass, Swallow has had some outstanding recordings with saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pianist Carla Bley and guitarist John Scofield

16. Kai Eckhardt – The German-born bassist is best known for his work with McLaughlin and drummer Billy Cobham. His style blends jazz, funk and world music, and he’s been hugely influenced by Marcus Miller

17. Dominique di Piazza – A master of the electric bass, this French-born musician was part of the John McLaughlin Trio, which also featured percussionist Trilok Gurtu in the early 1990s. He’s a huge influence on many younger players

18. Nathan East – A very versatile bass player, who has played jazz, rhythm n’ blues, and even rock. He was part of the smooth jazz quartet Fourplay, and has accompanied renowned musicians like Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins and Joe Satriani

19. Etienne M’bappe – From Cameroon, M’bappe is one of the most popular bassists on the scene today, with a style that blends jazz, classical and world music. He has played with the Joe Zawinul Syndicate and Carlos Santana, and is currently part of McLaughlin’s band The 4th Dimension

20. Richard Bona – Also from Cameroon, Bona stayed in Germany and France before settling in the US. He has played with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarists Larry Coryell, Mike Stern and George Benson, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis

Others: Besides these 20, the other names that immediately come to mind are Gary Peacock, Eddie Gomez, Phil Upchurch, Oscar Pettiford, Wilbur Ware, Victor Bailey of Weather Report, Rick Laird and Ralphe Armstrong of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Reuben Rogers. One must also mention Bootsy Collins, who revolutionised bass-playing in the funk field as part of singer James Brown’s band and later the group Parliament-Funkadelic.

There are many others who’ve contributed to the glorious world of bass-playing. Like the drums, the bass strengthens the rhythm section and acts as a backbone to most songs. Without a good bass line, a song is often empty.


The first-time experience at an abhang concert


Jayateerth Mevundi (left) and Anand Bhate

BEFORE this week, my exposure to the Marathi devotional music form of ‘abhang’ was limited to some immortal songs by three of India’s most legendary singers. My favourites were Pt Bhimsen Joshi’s rendition of ‘Teerth Vitthal’, ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’ and ‘Arambhi vandeen Ayodhyecha raja’, Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Pail to ge kau koktahe’ and Kishori Amonkar’s ‘Bolava Vitthal’ and ‘Avagha rang ek zhala’.

Then, on Wednesday evening, I was tempted to attend the concert ‘Bolava Vitthal’ at the Shanmukhanda Hall for two reasons. One, I had heard of the immense popularity of this event organised by Pancham-Nishad every year to celebrate Aashadhi Ekadashi. Second, it was to feature Jayateerth Mevundi, whose singing I have admired for well over a decade.

Clearly, the concert was an ear-opener of sorts. There are occasions in one’s life when one suddenly feels like exploring a new form of music more deeply, and for me, this was one of them. From around 6.15 pm to 10.30 pm, save a 15-minute break, I was mesmerised by the power of the songs which took me to another world.

I would like to clarify here that my knowledge of Marathi is very basic — passable in the market or while giving directions to rickshaw-wallahs. Hence, I did not get into the depths of the song meanings, though this is something I would love to do so in future. At the concert, I tried to sense which songs were popular by looking around for the reactions of those sitting around me. And though I took rough notes on my phone, I had to check the internet and YouTube for the exact titles.

The evening had four acts – Rahul Deshpande, Mevundi, Ranjani-Gayatri and Anand Bhate, in that order. It began with a bhajan featuring all of them. Then, each singer was to do four abhangs each.

Rahul Deshpande, grandson of the great vocalist Pt Vasantrao Deshpande, excelled on ‘Jatha Vaishnavacha’ and ‘Kaanada Raja Pandharicha’. I later discovered that the latter was known for its duet version by Sudhir Phadke and Vasantrao, and that song has been playing on a loop for the past two days.

With his extremely mellifluous voice, Mevundi rendered the popular ‘Visava Vitthal’, ‘Akaar ukaar makaar’ and ‘Rajas Sukumar’ rather well, but the highlight of his presentation was the Kannada bhajan ‘Bhagyada Lakshmi baarama’, whose Bhimsen-ji version I have grown up on. Before the break, Deshpande and Mevundi did a jugalbandi of ‘Taal bole chipalila’, coming up with an ethereal ‘Pandurang Pandurang’ climax.

Carnatic vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri, sisters who have also made a mark in the world of abhangs, impressed on ‘Je kan ranjale gaanjale’ and ‘Bolava Vitthal’. Finally, Anand Bhate, a disciple of Bhimsen-ji, enthralled the audience with ‘Maajhe maaher Pandhari’, ‘Johar mai baap johar’ and the Bal Gandharva-popularised Bhairavi bhajan ‘Aga Vaikunthicha raaya’. His rendition of intricate taans and ability to move from one octave to another were delightful.

The regret, if any, was that nobody performed ‘Teerth Vitthal’, and one has heard both Mevundi and Bhate do it so well in the past. Though some people might have felt that this would be a very predictable choice, one can never tire of that song. Yet, despite that, this was one of those lengthy evenings that one wished had lasted even longer.

So far, I had normally heard abhangs at the end of a khayal-dominated classical concert, sometimes on popular demand. This was the first time I had attended a full-fledged abhang concert, and I hope more are organised in Mumbai at regular intervals.

Besides Pancham-Nishad, the organisation Saptasur organises an annual festival called ‘Teerth Vitthal’. In fact, it is taking place at Thane’s Kashinath Ghanekar Natyagraha this Saturday (July 12) and will feature Bhate, Rahul Deshpande, Manjusha Patil and Sayalee Talwalkar. Yet, most of these concerts are held towards Aashadhi Ekadashi in June-July, and hence one wishes there are some shows at other times of the year.

From my first experience of attending an abhang concert, I have a few other observations. Let’s take them one by one:

1) The obvious one is that this music is not only spiritually uplifting, but sublime and ethereal enough to mesmerise you mentally. The songs often begin in a medium tempo, but
the climax in most cases is so energetic, one is left asking for more.

2) Singers of this style not only require a supreme command over the classical nuances, but also great power and range. To excel at this form, one must have that X-factor, that ability to transcend beyond limits. For that, plenty of ‘taiyyari’ is required.

3) This music is very strong on rhythm, and that makes it vibrant. While the harmonium provided the melodic accompaniment, the tabla, pakhawaj and manjira pepped up the rhythm section, adding to the energy of the singing. Songs with a more vibrant climax concluded with the blowing of the ‘shankh’, or conch shell, giving a temple-like effect.

4) The huge Shanmukhananda Hall was nearly packed, and one didn’t get tickets for the ground floor. This just shows that there is a large audience for this form, a sizeable chunk belonging to the Maharashtrian community. Since these shows are held in other parts of India too, one should make extra effort to spread awareness about abhangs to non-Maharashtrian audiences too.

5) This was missing at Wednesday’s show, but it’s extremely important to recognise the poets. Most of these gems have been written in praise of the god Vitthala by such great personalities as Sant Tukaram, Dnyaneshwar, Eknath and Namdeo. Though the poets normally take their names within the song, the lay listener may tend to skip them. As such, it would be ideal if the singers mention the poets and say a few words about the composition before reciting it.

Though the show was hugely successful and the quality of music was extraordinary, the singers sang with an approach that they felt the audience may have been 100 per cent knowledgeable. Yes, a majority of those attending would have been diehard abhang fans, but I am sure there were quite a few lay listeners who wanted to know more about the form.

A few words to address their needs would have been helpful. I am sure there would have been many other first-timers like me.

CD review/ Andholan ― Mekaal Hasan Band


Andholan/ Mekaal Hasan Band

Genre: Fusion-rock

Rating: ****

IN its first two albums ‘Sampooran’ and ‘Saptak’, the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) wonderfully mixed classical bandishes and traditional Sufi compositions with western elements like rock and jazz. The Lahore-based group uses the same mix on its latest album ‘Andholan’, but there is one major difference.

With popular vocalist Javed Bashir leaving the band, MHB has now gone in for a female vocalist in Indian singer Sharmistha Chatterjee. Considering that fans were bound to compare any male replacement with the incomparable Javed, that’s an intelligent move. For her part, Sharmistha has a strong Hindustani classical base, a good command over the ragas, and blends well with the energetic rock and jazz backdrop that embellishes most tunes. She also sings harkats and murkis freely, though there are occasions when one wishes the compositions had used less of them.

Besides her, the album features the supremely talented Mekaal on guitars, the brilliant Mohammed Ahsan Papu on flute, Amir Azhar on bass and Louis Pinto ‘Gumby’ on drums. In their forthcoming live projects, the rhythm section will comprise Mumbai-based drummer Gino Banks and bassist Sheldon D’Silva.

The album contains eight tracks, and the highlights are the innovative song structures, and the masterly coordination between guitars and flute. Interestingly, the band had a song called ‘Andholan’ on its album ‘Saptak’, but that’s not featured here.

The opener ‘Ghunghat’ is a version of poet Baba Bulleh Shah’s well-known Sufi kaafi ‘Ghunghat ohley na luk sajna, mein mushtaq deedaar de haan’. With its crisp guitars, flute and drumming, it sets the pace. Next, the band presents ‘Champakali’, based on the raga of that name. Papu’s flute is mesmerising, and a wailing guitar stretch glitters at the end.

‘Bheem’ is an adaptation of the traditional raga Bhimpalasi bandish ‘Ja ja re apni mandirwa, sun paave morey saas nanadiya’. The composition has earlier been rendered by classical vocalists Pandit Jasraj and Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, and by Delhi fusion band Advaita, but MHB lends its own touch.

‘Sayon’, also based on Bulleh Shah’s poetry, is one of the strong points of the album. Slower than the other tunes, it has a soothing flute portion, with Sharmistha showing her vocal prowess on the lines ‘Aao sayon ral deyon ni vadhai, main var paaya raanjha maahi’.

‘Malkauns’, based on raga Malkauns, uses the composition ‘Aaj more ghar aayela balma’, once sung by the great Ustad Amir Khan. Mekaal is in great guitar form on ‘Sindhi’, producing a couple of crackling solos. ‘Megh’ starts with a folksy flavour, and picks up tempo. The final piece ‘Kinarey’ cuts down the pace, and is a simple, sing-along charmer.

All in all, this is another feather in MHB’s cap. The band has a distinct sound, and the tunes are strong enough to merit repeated hearing.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

CD review/ Lazaretto — Jack White


Lazaretto/ Jack White

Genre: Rock/ alternative

Labels: Third Man/ XL Recordings/ Columbia

Rating: *****

AS A part of the groups White Stripes, Raconteurs and Dead Weather, and through his debut solo album ‘Blunderbuss’, American singer, guitarist and songwriter Jack White has been recognised as one of the most versatile and accomplished musicians of the 21st century. Interestingly, he is often categorised as a modern blues musician, when in reality his music encompasses many more styles.

Check out the first three songs of White’s second solo album ‘Lazaretto’, to begin with. The opening track ‘Three Women’ is in the blues space, no doubt. An uptempo reworking of Blind Willie McTell’s classic folk-blues beauty ‘Three Women Blues’, it sets the pace for the album as he talks of having three women – “red, blonde and brunette”, in comparison to the original’s “yellow, brown and black”. But his fascination for the blues ends just there.

The second number, which is the title track, blends a hip-hop vocal line with garage rock guitars and folk/ classical violins, with an incredible distortion-filled, Led Zeppelinesque guitar solo in between. Then, on the next song ‘Temporary Ground’, he explores country ‘n’ western territory, getting in violinist and singer Lillie Mae Rische to do parts that are so reminiscent of Emmylou Harris. Add to that some crisp pedal steel guitar and lines like “Moving without motion, screaming without sound, across an open ocean, flying there on temporary ground” and you have an absolute winner.

Get the drift? Across 11 songs, White never ceases to surprise. Throughout, he moves from one genre to another, making it difficult to pinpoint where exactly his sound belongs. Even more impressive is the quality of lyric-writing on some numbers, as White talks of everything from loneliness to rejection to irony with articulate ease.

The opening of ‘Would You Fight For My Love?’ sounds like the theme music for an action movie, but slowly, he gets into a late 70s feel, with soaring back-up vocals and a driving rhythm. ‘High Ball Stepper’, the only instrumental track, is filled with trademark distortion and fuzz guitars that move between psychedelic and grunge zones.

On the Stones-like ‘Just One Drink’, White talks about a woman who’s been nasty to him, with the lines “I love you, but honey why don’t you love me?” The next track ‘Alone In My Home’ is held together by an ultimately melodic piano line, and then talks of loneliness on the lines “I’m alone in my home, alone in my home, nobody can touch me.”

For a delightful change in tempo, ‘Entitlement’ gets into folk-rock rebel mode. Against a charming piano line, White sings with the kind of raspy twang that’s so reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, and truly impresses with the lyrics “Stop what you’re doing and get back in line; I hear this from people all the time; If we can’t be happy then you can’t be too; I’m tired of being told what to do, Yeah, I’m sick of being told what to do”.

The next number ‘That Black Bat Licorice’ is a complete contrast in sound. Starting with madcap laughter and pounding garage rock riffs, it moves on to hip-hop vocals, and synthesisers, violins and guitars that sound inspired by Asian and Middle Eastern music. On the country-pop tune ‘I Think I Found The Culprit’, White smartly blends acoustic guitars with pedal steels, keyboards, violins and haunting back-up chants. The repeated line “Birds of a feather may lay together but the uglier one is always under the gun” lend a sing-along feel.

The album concludes with the wonderfully-written ‘Want And Able’, which talks of the difference between having a desire for something and actually achieving it. The words “Now, Want and Able are two different things;
One is desire, and the other is the means; Like I wanna hold you, and see you, and feel you in my dreams; But that’s not possible, something simply will not let me” talk of the irony of life.

What you have, in effect, is an album that is strong on its distinctness, its arrangements and its songwriting. Clearly, this is one of the best selections of songs released in the past year or so, proving that White is simply moving from strength to strength.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

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