Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for November, 2014

Three clashing jazz festivals and one memorable show


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BRILLIANT: Canadian band The Shuffle Demons at Blue Frog, Mumbai, on November 26

THIS evening, three exciting jazz festivals are slated to begin. All of them will last three days, but while the Reclamation Jazz festival will be held in Mumbai and the Jazz Fest 2014 in Kolkata, keep guessing where the Goa International Jazz Live will take place. Sadly, nobody in the world has six feet to make it to all three places.

Such clashing of events is quite common in Hindustani classical music, where one often has to choose between five or six places on a single evening in the same city during season-time. But having three major jazz festivals on the same three days is unfortunate. If planned differently, the true-blue jazz fans could travel from one city to another and attend different shows.

While India has been hosting some fantastic jazz festivals of late, most of them are in November, when the music season has just begun. Besides the three festivals happening this weekend, you had the Jazz Utsav in Delhi and the Shisha Café International Jazz festival in Pune. Considering that at one time we only had the iconic Jazz Yatra, which eventually made way for Jazz Utsav, this trend of having multiple festivals is more than welcome. Yet, one feels some of them could happen at different times of the year.

Through the year, many cities have a fair number of one-off shows, some of which are organised by foreign diplomatic and educational bodies. Besides Mumbai and Delhi, one finds a lot of good stuff in Bangalore and Kolkata. Recently, Mumbai hosted a rare big band concert by Russian saxophonist Igor Butman and his group, and on December 1, the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, a fusion-jazz group consisting of musicians from India, Pakistan and the UK, plays at the Tata Theatre. While that’s good news, one hopes the jazz fever continues a little longer and doesn’t vanish by the year-end.

TALKING of jazz shows, the act that really blew me this year came from Toronto, Canada. Called The Shuffle Demons, they played at the Blue Frog on Wednesday in what was one of the most foot-tapping sets heard in Mumbai in a long time.

The band was brought in by the organisers of Ragasthan, the popular desert camping festival that is held near Jaisalmer, and whose dates for next year have been fixed for February 12 to 15. A host of Indian and international acts are slated to perform, and it promises to be a great experience.

What set The Shuffle Demons apart at the Ragasthan pre-event party was their sheer energy and vibrancy. Though their set lasted only 70 minutes and they played just seven numbers, they simply wowed the crowd with their brand of happy music.

The band played a well-blended amalgam of jazz, funk, hip-hop, reggae and world music, and never ceased to surprise with the directions their tunes took. Plus, all the five members were natural showmen, dressed in distinct costumes, jiving on stage and beginning and ending their show by doing a round of the venue.

The other unique thing about The Shuffle Demons was their line-up. While the rhythm section was manned by drummer Stich Wynston and bassist Chris Banks, they had three saxophonists – Richard Underhill, Ryan Oliver and Shawn Nykwist. There were no guitars or keyboards, and all five musicians chipped in with vocals.

The band began with the pieces ‘Perry’s Groove’ and ‘One Good Turn’. The other tunes included their favourites ‘Cheese on Bread’ and ‘Spadina Bus’, and a version of the Charles Mingus tune ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Tune’ lent variety. One only wished they had played another half an hour.

The Shuffle Demons will play tonight at the Goa festival, followed by appearances in Bangalore, Kolkata and Delhi. The tour is also being used to promote their latest CD ‘Clusterfunk’. Surely, their shows are not to be missed. So do try and shuffle across and hear them if you’re in one of these cities.

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Why Pink Floyd’s new album disappointed me


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IF I hadn’t grown up on the 1970s albums of Pink Floyd, I would have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I hadn’t spent so many hours listening to ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Animals’ and the better half of ‘Meddle’, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I wouldn’t have been mesmerised by instrumentals like ‘Interstellar Overdrive’, ‘One Of These Days’, ‘On The Run’, ‘Any Colour You Like’, ‘Terminal Frost’ and ‘Signs Of Life’, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. Oh, if I hadn’t idolised David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright, Nick Mason and Syd Barrett, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’.

Now, it wouldn’t take a genius to realise that the latest Pink Floyd album, released almost two decades after its previous ‘The Division Bell’, isn’t on my list of favourites. At least, I wouldn’t give it four stars or five stars as many across the world have been doing, or hail it as the best piece of ‘ambient’ and ‘new age’ music created in centuries. On the other hand, I wouldn’t slam the effort totally, or give it a one-star rating like the reviewer of ‘The Independent’, London.

Reviews are more often than not subjective, and so it be with mine. Though a couple of tracks like ‘It’s What We Do’, ‘Anisina’, ‘Sum’ and ‘Calling’ definitely have the Floyd class, ‘The Endless River’ hardly moved me in toto. Yes, there are many instances of instrumental genius, but that’s a given in any Floyd album. On a generous day, I would settle for two and a half stars, and on a mean day, I would stick to two.

Before listing down my main problems with ‘The Endless River’, here’s a small brief about the album. Released as a tribute to Wright, who passed away in 2008, it contains 17 instrumental tracks and one vocal number. Most tunes fall in what is described as the ‘ambient’ category, though some of them have the quintessential psychedelic rock bearings that Floyd popularised four decades ago.

My main issue with ‘The Endless River’ is that it just seems like a collage of sounds of the past. Gilmour’s guitar riffs, Wright’s keyboard effects and Mason’s drumming patterns have mostly been heard before, often reminding you of portions from ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side’, ‘The Division Bell’ and ‘Meddle’. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that half the pieces sound like ‘Signs of Life’, the opening track of ‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’ has been dumped into a mixer-grinder and hurled around to create many splinter tunes.

Secondly comes the album’s format itself. Over the years, though Floyd has released instrumental tunes here and there, especially in early albums like ‘A Saucerful of Secrets’, ‘Atom Heart Mother’ and the ‘More’ soundtrack, it hasn’t done an out-and-out instrumental album. In the past, the wordless songs have come between the vocal ones, and have often provided some diversion to the overall effort. In the case of ‘The Endless River’, we have 17 instrumentals with more or less the same formula, making things sound monotonous.

Third, some of the Floyd instrumentals of yesteryears have been classics in their own right. The psychedelic wizardry of ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ (from ‘The Pipers At The Gates of Dawn’), the double-tracked bass of ‘One of These Days’ (‘Meddle’), the infectiousness of ‘When You’re In’ (‘Obscured by Clouds’), the stunning effects of ‘On the Run’ (‘Dark Side’), the majestic build-up of ‘Any Colour You Like’ (‘Dark Side’ again), the jazz-filled saxophone splendour of ‘Terminal Frost’ (‘A Momentary Lapse of Reason’) and the laidback elegance of ‘Cluster One’ (‘The Division Bell’) all give them a unique charm and character. The tunes of ‘The Endless River’ are pleasant on their own, but that X-factor so characteristic of Floyd is missing. The same is true for the vocal track ‘Louder Than Words’, which has a sound we have heard since the 1970s.

Next we come to the length of the tunes. Of the 18 cuts, nine are less than two minutes. And almost all these nine seem to be incomplete attempts at trying to do something and yet heading nowhere. The pieces start in trademark Floyd style, one hears a swanky riff somewhere, and just when you think the actual song is about to begin, it’s over. A related complaint has to do with the fact that most pieces have rather abrupt endings at a time when you’re just getting a hang of them.

Finally, there may be individually brilliant portions, but the sum just doesn’t add up. I can hear two or three tunes at a time, but beyond that, things drag. Half the time, I want to go back to earlier albums like ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Dark Side’, ‘Animals’ or even many people’s favourite ‘The Wall’. Surely, ‘Mother’, ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ and ‘Vera’ sounded leagues ahead.

Oh, if I had been born 30 years later than I was and had just been introduced to Floyd three months ago, I would have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I had been swayed by all this hype surrounding its release, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’. If I had just believed in blindly following the latest fads, I’d have loved ‘The Endless River’.

A neat ABBA tribute


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The original ABBA

A LARGE section of the audience may not have recognised the opening instrumental passage, which was the title theme from the ‘Arrival’ album. But the moment ‘Dancing queen’ came on, everyone was on their feet. For nearly two hours after that, they had a perfect party.

The concert by ABBA Gold, a tribute band, drew a packed crowd at the Willingdon Catholic Gymkhana in Santa Cruz on Saturday night. It was a good mix of various age groups, and obviously a large chunk of them had grown up on the original Swedish pop supergroup.

Interestingly, this was the first of two ABBA tributes scheduled for this month. On November 8, a tribute band called ABBA Mania will play at the Bandra Gymkhana. Though the set list may be very similar to last week’s gig, this should be another treat for fans.

Back in the 1970s, ABBA had been a rage. Comprising Anni-Frid Lyngstad, Agnetha Faltskog, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, they had stormed charts and hearts with a string of hit albums. Many teenagers of that time had got into western music through ABBA, Boney M or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which had songs by the Bee Gees. And though the same people later called ABBA old-fashioned because their own tastes had drifted towards rock or jazz, they eventually came back to revisiting their songs.

ABBA was special in many ways. The compositions were filled with melody and the lyrics were simple enough to be appreciated and remembered. The arrangements were unique too, whether they did simple pop songs, ballads or the faster, disco-influenced stuff, Benny and Bjorn were considered among the world’s greatest songwriters.

Most important, the songs had a Scandinavian charm which made them unique. Agnetha and Anni-Frid, who sang most tunes, had a distinct Swedish accent and yet were so perfect with the technicalities, displaying pure voice structure and incredible range, besides excelling in the harmonies. Sadly, the members began to have differences, and though they never officially announced a split, they stopped performing together after December 1982.

During those days, most people would have possessed ABBA’s music on vinyl records or cassette. The band was regularly played on the radio, and that was where many teenagers got their regular dose. With original albums and various compilations like ‘Gold’, ‘More Gold’ and ‘Number Ones’ being released later on CD, the fans bought them once again, and the next generation of listeners was exposed too. Even today, their music is played in parties.

Not surprisingly, one could spot so many people humming along at Saturday’s gig. After Bashir Sheikh did an opening set that included covers of Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Frank Sinatra, ABBA Gold came along. ‘Dancing queen’ was followed by ‘Super trouper’, ‘Angel eyes’ and ‘SOS’. ‘The winner takes it all’ was adapted to suit the singer’s voice, and one missed the high notes of the original. ‘Voulez vous’ had the audience on their feet and dancing.

Other hits from the first half were ‘Name of the game’, ‘I do, I do, I do, I do, I do’, ‘Ring ring’ and ‘Money money money’. On some songs like ‘Angel eyes’ and ‘Ring ring’, one clearly missed the Swedish accents that made the originals so unique. But the more the group played, the more nostalgic the crowd became.

ABBA Gold began their second set with ‘Lay all your love on me’, and followed it with ‘Knowing me knowing you’ and ‘Honey honey’. ‘Does your mother know’ was repeated in the encore. ‘Gimme gimme gimme’ and ‘Take a chance on me’ attracted the hardcore fans, whereas ‘Chiquitita’, ‘Fernando’, ‘Thank you for the music’ and ‘Waterloo’ impressed with their soulfulness. On ‘Mamma mia’, the group invited everyone to dance, and played the song in a more uptempo manner. A highlight was the drum solo, which lent variety.

While the show was extremely enjoyable, one missed certain songs. ‘I have a dream’ was probably not done because the original has a children’s chorus. Other omissions included ‘Nina pretty ballerina’, ‘Hasta manana’, ‘Eagle’ and ‘As good as new’. Also, the attempts at humour between songs fell a bit flat.

But for all ABBA fans, this would have been a treat. The songs are ageless, and even today, they sound as charming as they did in the 1970s. Only a few people might have seen the original group abroad during their hey day, and this was the closest one could experience.

Over the years, Mumbai has had a good taste of tribute bands. In the mid-1990s, an Eagles tribute band thrilled the audience at the Sophia Bhabha Hall. The famous Bootleg Beatles, who sing and look like the Fab Four, had a fantastic show at what was then the Juhu Centaur hotel.

In 2009, the group After Midnight did the show ‘Classic Clapton’, with Mike Hall playing the role of Eric Clapton. The same year, at the Shanmukhananda Hall, the all-girl group Lez Zeppelin did songs of… you guessed it… Led Zeppelin. A group called Higher On Maiden had visited other cities like Bangalore and Imphal in the past.

As far as ABBA goes, this isn’t the first tribute band to have visited India. Some 10 years ago, a group called Bjorn Again had come for an event which featured other artistes too. ABBA Gold too were earlier scheduled to perform in May but didn’t get visas as the elections were taking place that time. But every thing comes at the right time, we guess. Those who got to see them were simply lucky. If you missed that, you can catch the other gig at Bandra Gym.

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