Jazz and classical Indian music have never been mutually exclusive ideas, given the past experiments of guitarist John McLaughlin and Shakti, Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction and such. But from the Indian side of the equation, it’s the likes of sitarist Niladri Kumar’s Zitar and mandolinist U. Shrinivas who’ve made the greatest strides toward integration in the last decade. Progressive musicians both, the two are at the forefront of Indian fusion jazz, with Kumar going the furthest in his use of ambient electronic sound and programming and Shrinivas doing his best to maintain tradition on all levels.
Niladri, the son of Pandit Kumar—an Indian master sitarist who worked and studied under Ravi Shankar—has crafted his own five-string electric sitar whose effects are nothing if not stunning. Think Robert Fripp’s Frippertronic loops and you have an idea of the soaring roar and undulating pulse of “Zilebration” and the spacey elevation of “Liplocked.” There is the pixilating thump of Indian instrumentation (tabla, sarangi) that marks much of what Niladri’s achieved here—the ticklish sound of “Yearning” is one example. But it’s how that traditionalism is teased with elegant orchestral sounds (“Priority”), his slew of Western instruments, and Aggi Fernandes’ synths and programming that really makes Niladri’s sitar spin.
Upalappu Shrinivas also followed in his pop’s footsteps (that being Sri Satyanarayana) but with an instrument not so commonly heard in Indian music until the 1940s. Though more Indian-traditional in his new album’s instrumentation than Kumar (lots of on tabla, kanjeera and ghatam), Shrinivas has long been more direct in his relationship to jazz, what with stints on McLaughlin records and the recent Davis-escapade Miles From India. McLaughlin is along for one softly ethereal ride (“From Folktales”) on this newest album. But the rest of Samjanitha finds Shrinivas & co. navigating the neatly rounded angles of “The Deep End” and “Wildfires” with slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya and saxophonist George Brooks furthering the sensitive melodies within.