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Archive for the ‘CD reviews – fusion’ Category

CD review/ And A Half – Arka


Album: And A Half

Artistes: Arka

Label: Times Music

Price: Rs 295

Rating: *****

WE’VE all known Selva Ganesh as an outstanding player of the Carnatic percussion instrument kanjira, and as one of the members of the group Remember Shakti. Now, the son of ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakram adds another feather to his cap via the fusion band Arka.

Here, Selva is joined by five extremely talented musicians – vocalist Karthik, flautist Ravichandra Kulur, drummer Gino Banks, bassist Mishko M’ba and guitarist Santhosh Chandran. Recently, the group launched its album ‘And A Half’, which as its title suggests, contains compositions with odd rhythmic scales ranging from one-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half.

Blending styles as diverse as Carnatic, Hindustani, rock, jazz, funk and flamenco, the album is a symbol of mathematical precision. Technically, everything is bang on target, and the tunes grow on repeated listening. Karthik, well-known for his playback singing and his work with AR Rahman, excels on the sargam passages, presenting complex phrases with effortless ease. Though he is sometimes reminiscent of Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan, he has a presentation style that’s his own, and a supreme command over the nuances.

The other musicians are in perfect sync, and there is some terrific interaction between them. Selva’s spoken konnakol portions blend smoothly with Karthik’s vocals, and the accompaniment of Ravichandra’s flute, Gino’s drums and Mishko’s bass is first-rate. If anything, one feels Santhosh is a bit underplayed, but wherever he appears, he’s a delight.

‘And A Half’ contains eight tracks, beginning with ‘Arka’, a piece in seven-and-a-half. With lyrics by Manoj Yadav, it has some incredible interplay between vocals and flute, and supple drumming by Gino. ‘Meera’s Maya’, set in two-and-a-half, is a melodious number with the lines ‘Mhaare ghar aao preetam pyaara’, sung to the backdrop of marvelous flute lines.

‘Mini Tiffin’ bubbles with energy, with its funk-filled groove and flawless coordination. ‘Chain ko diya’, written by Gayatri Ganjawala, has an infectious hook, with Karthik singing ‘Mera wajood tere bin kuchh nahin’. On ‘Flamingo’, guitarist Santhosh excels with his flamenco-based sequences.

‘Parmaatma’, written by Manoj Yadav, has been set in a five-and-a-half beat cycle. After a slow bass and flute intro, it suddenly picks up tempo. ‘Ca Va Bien’ has some superb coordination between bass, drums, kanjira and voice. Set in one-and-a-half, the final piece ‘Boom Shankara’ is filled with verve, with the lines ‘Boom boom Shiv Shankar Mahadev Shiv Shankar’.

Each of the eight numbers has been masterfully presented. A lot of thought has gone into composing these tunes, which demanded total perfection from each artiste. While that has come naturally on the CD, one also saw that quality during the live performance held at Blue Frog last week to mark the launch. Clearly, Arka is a group with a future. It’s one of the most eclectic and exciting sounds to have come out in the recent past.

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


CD review/ Raagatronic — Shriram Sampath & Swarupa Ananth


Raagatronic/ Shriram Sampath and Swarupa Ananth

Genre: Indo-fusion

Label: Times Music

Price: Rs 295

Rating: ****

THE blend of traditional Indian music with electronic textures has a large potential audience among the younger generation. Mostly, these listeners consist of people who like the ambience of Indian classical music, without really knowing much about the nuances, and want something modern and progressive at the same time.

‘Raagatronic’, composed, arranged and programmed by Shriram Sampath and Swarupa Ananth of the group Filter Coffee, is a commendable effort in this direction. Shriram, a flautist, and Swarupa, who plays tabla and many other percussion instruments, use classical Hindustani raagas, and mix them with hypnotic electronic grooves and ambient sounds. For the main melodies, they have chosen stringed and bowed instruments like the sitar, e-sarod, guitar, dilruba, sarangi and violin, using a good balance between sampled sounds and live playing.

The album begins with raag Pilu, using a sitar sound, and uses violin on Darbari, guitar on Bhimpalasi, sarangi on Bhairav, sitar on Malkauns, dilruba on Yaman and e-sarod on Ahir Bhairav. The final piece, set in Bhairavi, uses the violin, veena and sarod. While the guest artistes include Chintoo Singh and Vipul Khunte on guitars, Manas Kumar on violin and Praashekh Borkar on e-sarod, Swarupa has herself played the tabla and percussions.

Incorporating many eclectic sounds and a wide assortment of rhythms, the tunes grow on repeated listening. Personal favourites are Bhimpalasi, Malkauns and Yaman, which have a good build-up and a perfect amalgam of the traditional raags and modern elements. Bhairavi impresses with its peppiness, and tight mix of sounds. The only jarring piece is Bhairav, where the sampled sarangi sounds rough in comparison to the actual sound of the instrument.

Being an experimental album, this may not impress the purists looking for the conventional way of gradually increasing the tempo to explore raags. But for audiences with an open mind, this is a good set to keep on loop. The pieces are roughly between four-and-a-half to a little over five minutes in length, and thus never drag. All in all, a good collection to boost your mood, with a soul that’s very Indian.

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

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/ Recharge Plus: Anuradha Pal


Recharge Plus/ Anuradha Pal

Genre: Fusion

Sur Aur Saaz/ Rs 295

Rating: *****

A disciple of the great Ustad Allarakha and Zakir Hussain, tabla exponent Anuradha Pal has established herself as an outstanding and innovative percussionist in her own right. Besides accompanying Hindustani classical musicians, she has been involved with experimental music through her all-female group Stree Shakti and the fusion outfit Recharge.

Anuradha’s latest album ‘Recharge Plus’ is a follow-up to the mighty impressive ‘Get Recharged !!!!’. Featuring an array of talented musicians, it is one of the most brilliant fusion albums to be released over the past couple of years, blending styles as diverse as Hindustani, Carnatic, Indian folk, devotional, jazz, Middle Eastern, African, Latino and even western classical to create some splendid sounds.

Besides composing the tunes, Anuradha herself plays an assortment of drums here. Apart from the tabla, she uses the pakhawaj, kanjira, djembe, darbouka, udu and bongos. And though other musicians chip in with mridangam, ghatam, cajon, timbales and the traditional drumkit, the album is not dominated by percussion. Smart and judicious use of keyboards, sarangi, sitar, shehnai, violin and saxophone, among other instruments, lend a complete feel.

Seven of the eight tracks consist of Indian vocals. Strangely, all the vocalists – Sandip Bhattacharjee, Aditya Khandwe, Nanu Gurjar, Vaishali Samant and Chandanabala – have been credited together, and one wishes the liner notes had mentioned who had sung which song.

The album begins with ‘High Voltage’, which stays true to its title. Bursting with energy, it begins with percussion and keyboards, before using impeccable vocal taranas and taans. ‘Desire’, which talks of waiting for a loved one, is a nice blend of the semi-classical thumri style with Latino and jazz melodies.

‘Just One God’ is a marvellous amalgam. It begins with the mantra ‘Ya devi sarvabhuteshu’, and goes on to include some breath-taking sargams, and a stretch from Carnatic composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s ‘Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham’ in raga Hamsadhwani. As a total surprise, we hear western classical snatches from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Beethoven’s ‘9th Symphony’.

‘Seventh Heaven’ is a wonderful adaptation of the Sufi piece ‘Kadi aa mil sanwal yaar ve’, written by Farhat Abbas Shah and popularised by Pakistan’s Mekaal Hasan Band. The singing on this version is simply soulful.

On the title track, Anuradha uses raga Miyan ki Malhar. While the first half contains some melodic sarangi, sitar and shehnai, a dazzling orchestral portion brightens up the climax. ‘Cloud 9’, the only instrumental piece here, is set in the rare nine-beat cycle, and has a heady combination of Carnatic music and jazz, with a mesmerising violin stretch by Raghavendra Rao.

‘Joy’ explores the Rajasthani folk style of Maand, using a soothing sarangi and crisp vocals. The piece, which celebrates the return of a loved one, also moves between the Hindustani, Carnatic and jazz worlds. Finally, ‘Recharged by Shiva’ is an invocation to Lord Shiva, containing a good selection of devotional shlokas.

Being primarily a tabla player, Anuradha ensures that each piece contains some amount of virtuosity on that instrument, and produces some dazzling stretches. Yet, she never makes the tabla dominate over the other elements, using it for just the right amount to fit in perfectly with the nature of the compositions.

For that matter, each composition is perfectly balanced, between genres and instruments. And going by the sheer energy levels, this is an album that is bound to recharge you repeatedly.

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

CD review/ Cosmic Chant — Rajeev Raja Combine


Cosmic Chant/ Rajeev Raja Combine

Genre: Indo-jazz fusion

Available on iTunes India, OKListen and other digital space

Rating: *****

BESIDES focusing on his career in advertising, and then starting his sonic branding company BrandMusiq, Rajeev Raja has been involved with his other passion of playing the flute for three decades. He’s studied both the western concert flute and the Indian bansuri, doing numerous gigs as frontman and accompanying various Indian musicians.

Keeping that introduction in mind, it comes as a surprise that he’s just released his debut album, ‘Cosmic Chant’, along with his band Rajeev Raja Combine. However, even if you wonder what took him so long, it’s obvious from the first time you hear this set that it is a labour of love, and a stunningly brilliant one at that.

The sound is a smooth mix of jazz and Indian classical, with elements of rock, Latin sounds and world music. Each of the eight tracks bears the stamp of rich quality, pure melody and crisp instrumentation. While the album is dominated by the flute, Chandana Bala’s accompanying classical vocals are an asset, and there’s some super-tight work by guitarist Hitesh Dhutia, keyboardist and saxophonist Tala Faral, bassist JD, drummer Vaibhav Wavikar and tabla player Vinayak Netke.

The flute is, of course, not new in Indo-fusion. However, most other flautists essentially belong to the Indian classical tradition, and thus stick to the classical rudiments of bansuri or venu playing, with their accompanying keyboardists, guitarists, bassists and drummers bringing in the jazz, rock and world music flavours. As Rajeev focuses on the metal concert flute, and has himself grown up on the best of both western and Indian music, he plays a cross-section of styles effortlessly.

Thus, what we have is an album with great variety. The opening piece ‘Drone’ starts with a pleasant melody line, followed by charming vocal sargams that flow into a marvellous piece of flute improvisation, which then leads to a neat saxophone solo. Just the ideal album opener.

‘Nightingale’s Song’ is another beautiful tune, beginning with melodic guitar lines, and then making way for flute and vocals, which complement each other perfectly. Somewhere down the line, bass and tabla join the action.

‘Mulligan’s Mood’, dedicated to jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, was composed by Rajeev back in 1982, and has been one of his concert regulars. After a steady build-up, the tempo increases suddenly, with some striking guitars and keyboards. Kenneth Rebello makes an appearance on bass here, and some breathtaking flute portions seem straight from the Jethro Tull/ Ian Anderson style sheet.

On the title track, which appears next, Rajeev gets into flamenco-Indian classical fusion mode. Beginning with a Paco de Lucia-styled guitar riff by Hitesh, this one has good coordination between the vocals, flute and rhythms. Chandana’s mid-composition sargam portion is a highlight, and the flute solo and tabla playing act as the right follow-up.

As its name suggests, ‘Grunge’ gets into rocksier territory, with energetic guitar and flute passages. ‘Friday Night Funk’ is a blend of Indian melodies and funk, and one finds shades of European folk in the later flute parts. Despite a title hinting at Middle Eastern music, ‘Turkish Delight’ is actually a stylish amalgamation of Latin and Indian music, with bossa nova and samba guitars and rhythms interacting with Carnatic vocals and haunting flutes.

Finally, ‘Peace’ acts as an ideal climax. Based on raga Hamsadhwani, popular in both Carnatic and Hindustani traditions, it boasts of wonderful interplay between vocals and flute, and an uplifting keyboard stretch.

What’s most impressive about ‘Cosmic Chant’ is that there’s not a single moment when you feel that the fusion is forced or artificial. There are absolutely no gimmicky show-off moments, no sudden displays of unnecessary energy outburst, no random intrusion of unwanted semi-spoken rhythm syllables — things which have become characteristic of most contemporary fusion projects.

The beauty of this album lies in its simplicity, variety and use of syncopation, and the fact that it has melody written all over it. It’s the kind of music you can play again and again, and yet it grows on you. Clearly, this is one of the best Indo-fusion albums released in the past decade or so.

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

CD review/ Bends ― VRavi Guitar Fusion


Bends/ VRavi Guitar Fusion

Genre: Fusion

Live & Direct Entertainment and Media, under license from Ravi Iyer/ Rs 200

Rating: ****

WHEN one thinks of guitarist Ravi Iyer, one would normally visualise him playing a crackling solo once popularised by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore or blues-rock hero Gary Moore. As a crucial member of the bands Witchhammer, Vayu and Para Vayu, Ravi has made a mark as one of India’s most talented rock guitarists.

Rock is only one side to him, of course. Having had an early exposure to Indian classical music through his family, and learnt the tabla at an early age, Ravi has always wanted to do music blending Indian music with western forms. Back in 2003, he released the album ‘Rocking Ragas’ and last year, he came out with the really likeable ‘Bends’ under the group name VRavi Guitar Fusion.

Though there have been very few practitioners, the guitar has been used in Indian classical music for around half a century. Brij Bhushan Kabra and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt have modified it and used it like a lap slide, sitting cross-legged on the floor and playing it in pure Hindustani classical style, moving from alaap to jod to jhala to compositions set to rhythm.

Ravi’s style, in contrast, is not classical but fusion music. Yes, jazz guitarist John McLaughlin has used a lot of Indian music patterns while playing with Shakti and Remember Shakti, but there, his guitar always interacted with another melody instrument like L Shankar’s violin or U Shrinivas’ mandolin, or even with Shankar Mahadevan’s voice.

What Ravi does differently, besides sitting on a chair, is that his tunes concentrate totally on the guitar ― hence the name VRavi Guitar Fusion. He doesn’t play entire ragas, but tunes based on well-known ragas, and yet combines both Indian and western styles.

As such, though ‘Bends’ is an experimental fusion album, the effect these tunes provide is that of easy and relaxed listening. You find Hindustani meends (glides from one note to another) and Carnatic gamakas (ornamentations) on the one hand, and arpeggio patterns and jazz or blues progressions on the other.

While Ravi’s guitar is the obvious backbone of the album, he is supported by a team of talented musicians, comprising Clio Karabelias on harp, Pelle Kruse on blues mouth-harp, the well-known Sridar Parthasarathy on mridangam (a double-sided south Indian percussion instrument), tabla players Rupak Dhamankar and Rahul Pophali, bassists Crosby Fernandes and Sonu Sangameswaran, and drummer Jake Bloch. What’s interesting is that the album was recorded live at Mumbai’s Blue Frog in front of an audience, so one hears clapping at the end of some pieces.

The album begins with ‘Aum’, composed in raga Yaman. It starts off slowly, building up the mood, and suddenly increases tempo after four and a half minutes.  Besides smooth guitar passages, the highlight of this piece is Clio’s harp, which bubbles with melody.

Next comes an adaptation of the popular English folk tune ‘Greensleeves’, with charming use of Carnatic gamakas and a nice backdrop of maracas. ‘Hamsadhwani’, based on the raga of the same name, has a nice percussion backdrop and more maracas, with the guitar improvising over six minutes. The piece uses the typical ‘tihai’ movement (phrases being repeated thrice) smartly.

‘Todi Jaldi’, based on raga Todi, impresses with its layakari (rhythm-play) and a vibrant bass portion by Crosby, played against a repeated guitar phrase in the backdrop. ‘The Rain Song’ in raga Brindabani Sarang builds up with vibrant percussions, and boasts of stunning guitar improvisations, and an energetic climax in the classical jhala style.

The nearly-12-minute ‘Durganaad’, based on raga Durga, uses the western drums and even a guitar overdrive, with the main solo having a perfect jazz feel. For variety, ‘Perc It’ is a percussion duet between Sridar’s mridangam and Rupak’s tabla.

Two tunes are used in reprise versions. The ‘Todi Jaldi Reprise’ uses drums in place of mridangam, and doesn’t change much from the original otherwise. As such, one may feel it need not have been used as it just makes the album lengthier, without really adding value. But ‘The Rain Song Reprise’ is a marvellous changeover with heavy guitar distortion and Pelle’s improvisational blues mouth-harp, ending the album on a raw and bluesy note.

A note on the guitars. On the album, Ravi used a Greg Bennett hollowbody single-neck jazz guitar. But more, recently for his fusion concerts, he has got a custom-made double neck guitar designed by Sunil Shinde. Both necks have six strings. The top neck is tuned to play Indian classical scales and ragas, and the bottom one is adjusted to play western chords and jazz or blues progressions.

What makes ‘Bends’ special is that in spite of the jazz and blues elements, all the pieces have a distinct and pronounced Indianness to them. As such, it should appeal to both Indian and western audiences, besides those who like to experiment with their music. Needless to say, those who are strictly fans of only Ravi’s rock music should be willing to open their minds. If one looks at the broader skill of instrument-playing, ‘Bends’ is one of the most important guitar albums released in India.

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


CD review/ Crossing – Ravi Chary

Crossing/ Ravi Chary

Indo-jazz  fusion/ EMI Music/ Rs 295

Rating: ****

OVER the past 15 years or so, I’ve seen sitar player Ravi Chary live in concert off and on, primarily in Indo-jazz fusion outings by percussionists Trilok Gurtu and Taufiq Qureshi. Abroad, of course, he’s played with well-known vocalists Angelique Kidjo and Salif Keita, drummer Paco Sery, bassist Kai Eckhardt and electronica giant Robert Miles.

Though one has heard contributions from him on many Trilok Gurtu albums and the Miles Davis multi-artiste tribute ‘Miles From India’, , it’s on the new release ‘Crossing’ that one gets a complete feel of his class. Giving him company is an A-class guest list that includes Indian keyboardists Louiz Banks and Harmeet Manseta, drummers Ranjit Barot, Sivamani and Gino Banks, percussionists Fazal Qureshi, Taufiq Qureshi and Sridhar Parthasarathy, guitarists Dhruv Ghanekar and Amit Heri, bassist Sheldon D’Silva, pianist Merlin D’Souza and saxophonist Rhys Sebastian.

The nine-track album has a good blend of Indian classical, jazz, rock and world music, with distinct influences of pioneering band Weather Report on some portions. The first two pieces ‘Yogi’ and ‘5.5’ have been arranged by Gino Banks, who’s also the album’s creative director. Good sitar passages played to a striking drum and tabla rhythm line.

‘Sadguru’, dedicated to Trilok Gurtu, has some brilliant keyboard stretches by Harmeet Manseta and crisp guitaring by Amit Heri. ‘Tree Of Souls’ is a Weather Report-styled masterpiece arranged by Sheldon, whereas Chary plays fabulously on the melodic ‘Synergy’, catchy ‘Divine Sphere’ and soulful ‘Myra’ ― the latter featuring an upright bass.

The album concludes with ‘Funk Jog’, a wonderfully-improvised piece featuring young saxophonist Rhys Sebastian, and ‘Twilight’, in which raag Puriya Dhanashree is given a jazz touch, with some smart contribution by drummer Ranjit Barot and pianist Louiz Banks.

Throughout the album, Chary’s playing is effortless and majestic. Among the lay-listeners, he may not be as well-known as the younger players Niladri Kumar and Anoushka Shankar, but as a fusion and world music player, he’s definitely making waves. ‘Crossing’ is clearly a class apart and a cross apart.

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

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