06/04/11 By Monique Avakian
REVIEW—LIVE SHOW: The Neel Murgai Ensemble, May 14, 2011
Raga Chamber Jazz and the Transformative Power of Music by Monique Avakian
What happened the night of May 14, 2011 at South Presbyterian Church in Dobbs Ferry, NY exactly? Were we meditating? Spiritually vibing with the ancient tradition of the devotional raga? Listening to high level improvisational jazz? Calming jangled nerves with poetic metaphor and western classical chamber music?
Answer: all of the above. And we were transported. Every human being in that room was lifted into another realm of existence by the music. And this is the myriad level of nuance and radiance you, too, will experience while listening to the raga chamber jazz quartet known as the Neel Murgai Ensemble.
This concert, put on by Common Ground Community Concerts (in Association with RiverArts), was a cross-cultural musical journey of sound and form exploration made even more meaningful by the high caliber of musicianship and the acoustical warmth of the room.
The group played six original compositions that blended traditional Indian raga music with modern jazz improvisation and traditional western classical forms. While advanced compositional and improvisational techniques were employed, I want to emphasize that this was not some kind of rubic’s cube-type exercise solely involving the finer points of music theory. As one listener enthused upon exiting: “There was nothing cerebral about this. It was so sensual; it was so immediate…” Another audience member noted incredulously at the break: “I can’t believe this, but I think I started to meditate!” I myself became so emotionally charged by the third piece that I had to take a brief walk at intermission in order to successfully return to the physical world of cookies, coffee and chit-chat.
What went on within that room to generate such a positive and transformative unified field?
The first tune, Charukeshi Monday, brought us into the musicians’ sphere gently and effectively with the power of the drone. Listeners of all ages and from all walks of life engaged immediately with the call of the sitar and tabla, viola and cello: the youngest member of the audience scampered immediately to the front in order to get the best view of the group. There were some unison swells and a few western-sounding classical phrases offered, and this helped the uninitiated listener continue to move out of mundane day-to-day concerns and into the growing depth of the music.
Song #2, Panchatantra, gave us an immediate change-up into a “phat,” funky groove established by Ms. Hughes on cello. Her level of emotional commitment and firm technique set a tone of contagion that held all of us spellbound as she exemplified what it means to “play in the pocket.” Hughes set the groove so deep in our veins, and the musicians were in such close communication with one another, that at one point I felt as though I were listening to a single person jam away on piano.
The jell of the beat set us up nicely for the solos, all of which echoed the established metaphorical theme of synchronized individualism. Mr. Maneri entered from a rhythmic standpoint and impaled us (gently) with some flying runs and duo-tone chording that somehow kept the drone feel going. This set up a nice field of choice for the other soloists, underscoring Mr. Maneri’s finely honed ability to lead from the back in his very subtle way. Throughout the evening, Maneri illustrated a level of integrity that moves well beyond ego, providing a spiritual and musical generosity that is as rare as is it desired.
Another firm construct of musicianship established with this tune and maintained throughout the evening was the high level of improvisational interplay wielded between Mr. Maneri and Ms. Hughes. I found out later that the cellist had only recently joined the group, which makes the level of empathic communication between the two even more astounding. During her solo in this tune, Ms. Hughes built off of what Maneri had established melodically, but with shorter phrasing, complete with some very pleasing pauses and percussive plucking that once again solidified the very well-established groove.
Gupta’s tabla during Panchatantra also conveyed a great degree of supportive leadership, as he provided a radically different walking pace in accompaniment to each soloist. When his turn came to solo, Gupta’s unique tabla beats felt like a sophisticated, jazzy body-percussion dance with well-positioned polyrhythmic “bomb” hits zapping the audience with several jolts. At one juncture, it felt as though tap dancer Savion Glover had been channeled into the room! The phrasing during this tabla solo was extremely masterful because Gupta took us so far out, yet somehow maintained the structure of the groove and helped to masterfully direct the flow of the change-ups.
Tune #3, Brooklyn ki Bhairavi, took us in and in and in and led us into a completely different direction. This soulful sound poem was so authentic in its emotional delivery, I truly felt the jagged agony of sadness and longing expressed here as my own. 24 hours later, I am still having a hard time shaking out of the emotional intensity of the depth of feeling I encountered here. To have had this level of feeling evoked in me by this music is truly an instance of manna dropped from heaven! The level of heart and musicianship required to move people to this level emotionally cannot be overstated.
Brooklyn ki Bhairavi began with a more traditional drone-like feel, soon followed by the cello crying out. This was a plaintive cry; a cry of loneliness and separation. The viola echoed the cello, and then the two established a dialogue, crying out to one another over a great distance, each calling out in longing and loss. As the tabla and sitar began to involve themselves, I imagined myself lost in a familiar desert, wondering under a large globe of moon. My pensiveness became emphasized with a set of whole notes played by all in unison. The duet conversation was then repeated by the viola and cello, followed again with the unison whole note phrases. I began to wander into the psychological realm of confronting a truth about this state of longing—somehow sensing the finality of the emotional situation. Mr. Maneri’s viola here in this section was particularly soulful…
But then, the reverie was interrupted by an unusual jarring sound transmitted by the sitar, pushing me into a brewing swirl of anger now expressed by Murgai. In my mind I started smashing things, refusing to accept the finality of the loss. I raged along with the sitar as Mr. Murgai shouted out every detail of the events that led to the tragic separation I had imagined in my mind….
Eventually, the unison phrase repeated, and the audience was led back into more calm territory, with every person having successfully followed the arc of this universal poetic trajectory. The cello’s voice regained dominance, reminding us of the root of our sadness, our longing, and our loss as the melody then softly vanished into the night…..
After intermission, we embarked upon the fourth selection, entitled Decent (not on the CD). Again, the sitar opened, with the other three instrumentalists soon joining in with a lot of unison voicing. The repetitive thread phrase moved easily into the Western ear and helped the audience re-engage after the break. Gupta’s tabla skills were again highlighted in this tune with some incredibly fast licks played at a very soft level—something that takes an enormous amount of skill whatever the nature of the drum. The warm, deep sounds of the cello and viola provided a rich context for the sitar as well as for their own improvised explorations. The two again worked together to create a pleasing texture of sound with a high degree of communication and listening. And Mr. Maneri reminded us that he is not afraid of space while soloing. Viola and sitar moved together for awhile, but their conversation suddenly shifted into new territory with a jarring cadence advanced by the sitar. I wondered: is this technique some sort of signal on the part of the band leader? Margai maneuvered this way three times during the evening (once harmonically, once rhythmically and once melodically). Perhaps the intent was to keep the musicians from falling into too much of a drone-like feel? This jarring signal certainly forced me to attend to details, but I couldn’t decide if I liked the device or not. After the tabla telegraphed through with a series of rapid staccato beats, all four once again synced together and threaded the theme repetitively to conclusion.
Fifth in the evening’s program: Space Twang--chosen on July 16, 2010 as NPR’s “Song of the Day.” Solo sitar started the tune, showing off Murgai’s bending talent. Melodically, the traditional drone-like sound morphed into a very Victor-Wooten-kind of melodic rhythm. Mr. Maneri immediately went off into a complex harmonic exploration during his solo, firmly supported by the straight-ahead melodic character of the cello. Then he went into a more conventional-sounding melodic line, but played rhythmically over the bar line for quite awhile. This was followed by a well-placed blistering lengthy run that transformed into some more short phrasing with plenty of space. Mr. Maneri then finished off with a percussive bow pump technique, rounding out the textured nature of his inquiry.
Equally fascinating was Ms. Hughes’ response to Maneri’s arc of thought. Hughes literally held herself up as a mirror, repeating the conceptual patterns Maneri established, but in exact reverse order! She picked up his percussive bow-pump sound with some initial plucking, and then enticed us with some unconventional sound squonks. Then, Hughes started a rapid vibrato with her bow, followed up with several trills, then quickly moved into improvising off of the melody as Maneri had done earlier. During her solo, Maneri returned Hughes’ earlier favor of support by comping with the melody, straight and steady. The song wound down to conclusion with the lead sitar again sounding very Victor Wooten-like…
The last number played, Evening in A: Raga Yaman, is based upon a traditional evening raga. (Traditional Indian devotional ragas are keyed into different times of day in order for humans to open spiritually to the space held between the natural and supernatural world). The cello began with a plucked melody, and the other players joined in fairly quickly. The melody was a nice compliment to that offered previously, which helped the listener stay involved and in sync with the musicians. Here again, the cellist’s funky groove-like sensibility established a solid hold on the beat. Mr. Maneri flowed in and out with well-placed and authentic commentary, again, always supporting even when leading. The sitar sounded more western and conventional and stayed more in the background until, once again, horning in with that abrupt, jarring signal, creating a pivot--this time through a dynamically charged note cluster that resulted in a significant rhythmic change-up. When the time came for Murgai’s solo, he moved into a very contemporary rock guitar kind of exploration punctuated with some traditional raga-sounding riffs. The tabla here again revealed Gupta’s high skill level with some unbelievably rapid, yet supremely soft and well-positioned fills. During his solo, Gupta went over the bar line in a very inventive manner. He also positioned the low drum to emit a very un-tabla-esque sound, which had a very interesting effect.
As the tune continued to build and ascend with lots of unison in the four voices, a very transcendent feeling began to well in the room. Yet, the rock and roll feel continued also, somehow, as evidenced by one man’s enthusiastic head bopping dance. The players continued to build dynamically with a very complex rhythm played in unison. Then, Hughes bowed a long note and Murgai gave us the final and last word. This tune was a nice one for the group to end with, because the audience could easily hum the melody line on the way out the door.
Everyone in that room enjoyed the show to such an extreme extent! This generous quartet will lift your spirits in a unique and long-lasting way—don’t miss an opportunity to see the Neel Murgai Ensemble live!
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