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Rajna Swaminathan: Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia)

A review of the mrudangam virtuoso's latest album

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Rajna Swaminathan, Of Agency and Abstraction
The cover of Of Agency and Abstraction by Rajna Swaminathan

Rajna Swaminathan is a virtuoso on the mrudangam, the two-headed, tuned hand drum essential to Carnatic music, and in a surprisingly brief time has made a name for herself both in Indian classical music and jazz.

But Of Agency and Abstraction is not just another entry in the catalog of Indian-flavored jazz albums. As a composer conversant in multiple styles of improvisation, Swaminathan seems most interested in exploring relationships between pitch and rhythm across various musical traditions, an idea that draws heavily from Carnatic music theory but also has a significant footprint in jazz.

“Communitas,” for example, opens with Swaminathan, bassist Stephan Crump, and guitarist Miles Okazaki playing a slightly lopsided pattern in 9/8, which gets elaborated on with a sort of phased melodic statement by violinist Anjna Swaminathan, saxophonist María Grand, and guest trumpeter Amir ElSaffar. There’s some lovely interplay between trumpet, violin, and guitar, while bass and mrudangam ground the pulse with what seems almost a single voice. Then it feels as if the rhythms start moving backwards as the band segues into the appropriately titled “Retrograde.” The music is wonderfully contemplative, with a sense of narrative that lets each voice shine whether or not that particular instrument is soloing.

With a playing time of over 70 minutes, Of Agency and Abstraction offers an abundance of ideas, and though some are more compelling than others, the overall effect suggests that Swaminathan is definitely a composer to watch.

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J.D. Considine

J.D. Considine has been writing about jazz and other forms of music since 1977. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Musician, Spin, Vibe, Blender, Revolver, and Guitar World. He was music critic at the Baltimore Sun for 13 years, and jazz critic at the Globe and Mail for nine. He has lived in Toronto since 2001.