For most Americans, the sound of Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar, who died just over two months ago. Mentor to George Harrison, father to Norah Jones, namesake of Ravi Coltrane and classical virtuoso at home, Shankar implanted the buzzing, droning notes of his sitar and the rippling rhythms of his tabla accompanists so firmly in the Western world's imagination that his music came to stand for an entire subcontinent's tradition.
Of course, there's a lot more to Indo-Pak music than that: There are Bollywood orchestras, Qawwali singers, improvising violinists and mandolinists and trilling horns. It's this last aspect that's showcased on two remarkable new albums from Indian-American jazz acts: the horn nonet Red Baraat, which performs Thursday at the Exit/In, and the alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.
Like his fellow Indian-American and frequent collaborator Vijay Iyer, Mahanthappa was born in 1971 in the U.S. and grew up on Michael Jackson and Prince with minimal interest in his family's ethnic roots. Both men became obsessed with jazz before they turned their attention to the Carnatic music of South India. In other words, their path was mainstream to pop to American jazz to traditional Indian music — the same route that most U.S. fans will follow to their records.
In his belated research, Mahanthappa was excited to discover a Carnatic performer, Kadri Gopalnath, who had reinvented that largely vocal music for alto saxophone, unspooling long, warbling lines over shifting time signatures. Mahanthappa went so far as to obtain a grant so he could travel to India and collaborate with Gopalnath. The result was a series of joint concerts and a 2008 album, Kinsmen, which was neither pure Carnatic music nor pure jazz, but rather a mind-boggling mix of the two. Mahanthappa's improvisations were bluesier and punchier, while Golpanath's were more microtonal and fluid. But the two men struck up a true dialogue across all boundaries — a conversation that shed as much light on their differing methods of improvisation as on their respective continents.
Mahanthappa's new album, Gamak, is named after his newly assembled quartet, which is in turn named after "gamaka," the South Indian term of melodic ornamentation. The quartet reunites the leader with the rhythm section — drummer Dan Weiss and acoustic bassist Francois Moutin — from his 2006 album Codebook and replaces Iyer from that session with double-neck electric guitarist David Fiuczuynksi, Mahanthappa's bandmate in Jack DeJohnette's current band. The guitar, alternating between brittle, trebly noodling and fat-toned rocking, lends a definite fusion lean to the album, but Mahanthappa is phrasing more like Gopalnath than ever, finding the free-jazz blues of Ornette Coleman in the extended statements of Carnatic music.
If Mahanthappa recalls Coleman, Red Baraat recalls NOLA's Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Just as the Dozen uses the portable horns and drums of New Orleans' street parades as a means of combining jazz improvisation and dance rhythms, Red Baraat has done something very similar with the street-parade music of North India's Punjab province. The latter band of six horn players (including a New Orleans-like sousaphone) and three percussionists is led by Sunny Jain, who plays a double-sided Punjab barrel drum known as the dhol. Like Mahanthappa, Jain was raised in Rochester, N.Y., where he pursued the same path of pop music, then jazz, then the ethnic music of his parents.
Over the past 60 years, few musicians outside New Orleans have solved the vexing problem of making jazz danceable. How do you keep the groove muscular enough and consistent enough to pull listeners onto the dance floor and yet varied enough to allow for the elasticity and surprises of true improvisation? On the new album Shruggy Ji, Red Baraat presents a new solution by building its tunes atop North India's rolling, tumbling polyrhythm. Because this music naturally accommodates multiple pulses, it's easy to keep at least one rhythm tied to hip-shaking while others constantly reinvent themselves along with the horns.
On "Apna Punjab Hove," Jain's booming dhol anchors the infectious beat, while soprano saxophonist Arun Luthra warbles in long Indian lines not unlike those of Mahanthappa and Gopalnath, but over a street-party bounce that's almost salsa-like. Later in the same song, trumpeter Sonny Singh and trombonist Smoota engage in a hard-bop dialogue, as if they were Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers transported to Amritsar for the Vaisakhi parade.