Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted the final stage of the Bay Area tour of Brooklyn Raga Massive. (Their touring schedule will next take them to Seattle.) The program presented the Raga Jazz Messengers, a subgroup of the full ensemble, which had performed in its entirety this past Saturday at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. While it was never stated explicitly, it was pretty clear that this smaller combo took its name from the Jazz Messengers, one of the most significant jazz combos during the second half of the twentieth century, founded and led (for the most part) by drummer Art Blakey. That parallel showed signs of further emphasis since last night’s de facto leader seemed to be drummer (and co-founder) Sameer Gupta. While Brooklyn Raga Massive is interested in pursuing a jazz style that honors the cultural heritage of South Asia, last night Gupta played a thoroughly Western drum kit.
The primary Asian contribution came from Jay Gandhi’s performances of difference sizes of bansuri, a cross-blown wooden flute. Arun Ramamurthy played what looked like a contemporary violin; but, given the style of his performance, most likely the strings were tuned with pitches consistent with Carnatic music. The other members of the group were Pawan Benjamin on tenor saxophone and Michael Gam playing bass on a six-string guitar.
Many of the selections performed last night were composed by either Gandhi or Ramamurthy. However, there were also two pieces by Wayne Shorter. Probably not by coincidence, Shorter was one of the most significant “alumni” of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. The Shorter pieces were “JuJu” and “Oriental Folk Song,” both of which fit more than comfortably into last night’s instrumentation and South Asian approaches to style.
True to the group’s name, however, each of the Raga Jazz Messengers originals was based on a raga. A raga is usually compared to a mode or scale in Western music. However, while it is true that it is based on an ordering of notes, the raga tends to be recognized among those familiar with the music not only by the pitches it uses but also by some set of tropes that order those pitches in different ways (usually with little variation in rhythm). One of the implications of this approach is that harmonic progressions really do not figure in either composition or performance. Indeed, much of a performance tends to be structured around unisons and parallel octaves, allowing a single “melodic line” (if you wish to call it that) to wend its way over an underlying drone and percussion rhythms.
Those percussion rhythms, however, can be very sophisticated; and that sophistication clearly found its way into Gupta’s drum work. This was where the group departed most significantly from Blakey’s legacy. Listening to Gupta’s command of polyrhythms, the seasoned jazz listener was more inclined to think of the likes of Elvin Jones, rather than Blakey. However, through his inventive use of different instruments with different levels of pitch specificity, Gupta had an impressive gift for deploying his polyrhythms with a strong sense of polyphony, as if a heated conversation among many was emerging for the diversity of instruments in his kit.
The absence of harmonic progressions meant that it was unlikely that any of last night’s raga pieces would be confused with the music of any other culture. Nevertheless, during the performance of Ramamurthy’s “Conception” that one, on several occasions, could almost hear Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” from a far distance. Of course there were distinctive changes in harmony in “Afro Blue,” particularly when John Coltrane was leading a performance of it; and those shifts were eliminated in favor of the underlying raga. Nevertheless, there were moments when last night’s gig felt even more cross-cultural than its players may have intended.
The only weak part of the evening had to do with Gupta assuming the duties of host. Of the three “special guests” who joined the group for a few selections, only alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie enjoyed the luxury of having her name clearly articulated. The trumpeter and shakuhachi player had to endure the sort of incoherent mumbling that was immortalized in Stan Freberg’s parody of “Sh-Boom.” (“All right you guys, mumble!”) The Brooklyn Raga musicians did not fare much better, but at least their names could be found on the event page created for the C4NM Web site. Public performance always involves more than command of one’s instrument!