July 13, 2024


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From John Coltrane in the ’60s to current stars … Video

From John Coltrane in the ’60s to current stars Rudresh Mahanthappa and Dan Weiss in the 21st century, the influence of Indian musical traditions on jazz has been fruitful.

But veteran tabla master Zakir Hussain—leading a performance by his Indo-jazz group Crosscurrents for the sixth annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, on Nov. 5—pointed out that long before Coltrane was moved to explore the sound and spirit of Indian classical music, American jazz influenced musicians in India as far back as the Swing Era, thanks to the global popularity of Hollywood films.

The Crosscurrents sextet—which includes bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Sanjay Divecha, pianist Louiz Banks, drummer Gino Banks and vocalist Shankar Mahadevan—then busted into a bumptious, Bollywood-meets-blues number to illustrate the point. (Louiz Banks has explored somewhat similar musical terrain before, having been a key contributor to the late Bob Belden’s Miles From India project; bandmate Gino Banks is his son.)

The Indian-American community come out in force to express appreciation for Hussain, 66, whose every solo audibly thrilled the crowd. Along with his classical playing, the percussionist was a key figure in the mid-’70s acoustic band Shakti and its late-’90s successor, Remember Shakti; those groups were the most significant Indo-jazz collectives of their time, co-led by guitarist John McLaughlin.

Rivaling Hussain as an icon in the band is Bollywood star Shankar Mahadevan: The singer’s appearance for the second tune elicited rapture from the audience. His melismatic vocalism was particularly stirring in a pair of pieces representing, by turns, the South Indian and North Indian classical traditions. It was easy to hear why the emotional depth and expressive freedom of these age-old ragas have attracted not only Coltrane, but musicians from dozens of different genres over the decades.

Mahadevan explained to listeners how Indian classical music is driven by melody and rhythm, without harmony. But Crosscurrents harmonized these dark-hued ragas with arpeggiated piano chords and washes of electric guitar. Holland—who’s certainly no stranger to collaborating with musicians beyond jazz, having recorded with Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem—provided all-important arco drones on double bass. The effect was subtly beautiful, but it was Mahadevan’s bent notes and soaring energy that took the breath away.

The set also helped illustrate, partially, why members of the Indian classical tradition eagerly have incorporated the Western violin, with players like L. Subramaniam and L. Shankar (a member of the original Shakti) developing a sound emulating the fluid virtuosity of vocalists akin to Mahadevan.

In the more upbeat back half of the first raga, Holland added an intensely dexterous pizzicato solo, playing off the harmony from piano and electric guitar.

Mahadevan’s climactic acappella flourish brought the house down. The second raga saw the rhythmically fluent Potter play soprano lines that mirrored Mahadevan’s vocals.

Performing the last show of a 10-date tour at NJPAC, Crosscurrents made for the most adventurous program in a generally conservative Moody Jazz Festival. Still, the set was dragged down by multiple numbers of slick ’70s/’80s-style jazz-rock fusion composed by Louiz Banks, along with a similarly nondescript tune by Divecha.

But Gino Banks played a richly musical extended drum solo, his way at the trap set melding the subtle rhythmic focus of Indian music with the dynamics and volume of rock. He and Hussain often traded fours over the night, egging each other on.

Potter—who has enjoyed a long association with Holland—composed the playful “Hope,” which was delivered in a trio setting with the bassist and Hussain. This tune was in the spirit of some of the earlier, quick-tempo Indian pieces. With his bass ultra-amped for the big hall, Holland traded a woody tone for a liquid throb, not an inapt sound for this music; he contributed the duo piece “Finding The Light,” highlighted by the bassist’s melodic fluency and his rhythmic interplay with Hussain.

The tabla virtuoso performed his own absorbing solo feature near the end, his playing of the hand drums not only marked by maximum rhythmic articulation but rare tonal expressivity; he had the crowd hanging on every beat.

After a better Louiz Banks tune colored by Metheny-esque melodic lilt and polyrhythmic drive, Mahadevan sang his signature Bollywood hit, “Breathless,” which turned into a sing-along with the adoring crowd. If the encore—a saccharine Bollywood ballad that seemed oddly influenced by American country music—was a let-down for this listener, but obviously not for others in attendance.

Crosscurrents begins a spring tour in Los Angeles at Disney Hall on April 27, followed by shows in Toronto (April 29), Chicago (May 1), Princeton, New Jersey (May 2), Boston (May 3), New York (May 4–5) and Washington, D.C. (May 6).


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