Mother Tongue
Pi Recordings PI 14

Animul ANI 104

Two variations on South-Asian musical culture point out not only its wealth, but also how it too can grow and change far beyond the somewhat arbitrary divisions between Carnatic and Hindustani sounds.

Notwithstanding HARBINGER’s use of a tabla, and that two of the musicians on MOTHER TONGUE are Indian-American, neither date has much to do with the traditional sounds of the subcontinent, nor depends on Eastern exoticism for its shape. Instead, separately, each is an example of individual intermingling of traditions with modern improvised music.

Alto saxophone Rudresh Mahanthappa, who is of Indian background, named the compositions on his CD after different Indo-Asian tongues to counter Americans’ ideas that his ancestral homeland has merely one culture and one language. Without knowing his agenda though, he, helped by pianist Vijay Iyer, another child of Indian immigrants, French bassist François Moutin and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, whose mixed background is Italian-Spanish Nicaraguan/Russian-Jewish, MOTHER TONGUE can be enjoyed as pure jazz improvisation.

Sync’s operation is even more complicated. Although Samir Chatterjee plays tabla, a classical Indian drum, he varies his traditional patterns with jazz-inflected rhythmic variations. A teacher for the last 25 years, his knowledge of South and North Indian traditional music is formidable and by happenstance he plays in another improv trio with Mahanthappa and Iyer. Guitarist in Sonny Rollins’ band for six years, Jerome Harris also plays acoustic bass guitar here. Someone who has also gigged with musicians as different as trombonist Ray Anderson and the late saxophonist Julius Hemphill, Harris uses his acoustic guitar or acoustic bass guitar to add melodic as well as rhythmic color to the proceedings.

Meanwhile, Ned Rothenberg, whose playing partners have ranged from Japanese guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi to British saxophonist Evan Parker, contributes different contours from his Westernized clarinet, bass clarinet and alto saxophone, plus the Japanese shakuhachi.

Mahanthappa, who produces his strongest vibrations from mid-range blowing, hits the ground running from his CD’s first track, with all the tunes his own compositions. Between Kavee’s shuffle beat, Iyer’s cross-handed chording and the saxman’s double-tongued trills, however, any alien concept is masked by swing.

Most indicative of what the reedist is trying to do is “Telugu” and “Tamil”. Commencing with a rhythmic bass pattern from Moutin, pockmarked with piano fills, the first tune develops as Iyer’s high-frequency dynamics are interrupted by Mahanthappa’s solo which adapts a fruity vibrato with a singsong accented tang. These aren’t the sort of place specific timbres you’d hear from bansuri or venu flutes however, more like an uneasy mixture of Earl Bostic’s and James Chance’s tones. Eventually the snaky repetitive lines pushed by pedal point piano and echoing rat-tat tats from Kavee’s snare pulsate back to the initial jazzy head.

Despite its title, the other composition gets its shape from a combination of rim shot metallic action from Kavee, shaded and sharp notes from Iyer’s keyboard and soaring obbligatos from Mahanthappa. If you had to pick its genre, the phrase Heavy Metal Broadway style ballad comes to mind long before a resemblance to sounds from Sri Lanka. Moving forward constantly over the piano-drum action, the saxophonist’s buzzing tone gets deeper and his pitch sharper as he spills grace note over the piece, ending lockstep with Iyer.

Throughout his tone usually ranges from irregularly pitched to thin and grainy, although double and triple tonguing gives it more body when need be. Another construct is Mahanthappa’s mind-meld with longtime partner Iyer as he shows on the nearly eight minute “Circus” – which is not likely an Indo-Asian dialect. Vehement, resonating trills are met with assiduous piano lines, and soon the two are engaged in hocketing call-and-response patterns. However the pianist does have to rein in his cadences slightly, so as not to bury Moutin’s free flowing, spiccato solo in the middle.

If MOTHER TONGUE is good, then HARBINGER is outstanding, probably because the Sync three pack even more experience into their performance. Illuminatingly, the trio doesn’t limit itself to jazz and/or Indian musical references but draws on expanded textures.

“Kashmir”, written by Chatterjee, for instance, may feature a balladic undercurrent, and a tinge of unspecified non-Western sounds, but nothing really suggests the mountainous reality of the title. Harris’ fingerpicking guitar relates more to American folk music, while the harmonium-like buzz of unvarying sax line finally asserts itself in double counterpart to the strings. At the same time the membrane covered dayan and bayan rattle, thump and snap quietly behind, giving the lead instruments enough space in which to slur, flutter and meld.

These American folk influences come to the form often, most notably on the more-than-10½-minute “Phrygian Dreams”, and the almost 10-minute “Richie Havens”, enigmatically named for the singer/songwriter of the 1960s and both composed by Rothenberg.

His bass clarinet gets a workout on the first piece where its sonorous, reverberating tones are joined by plucked chromatic timbres from Harris that almost sound as if they’re coming from dulcimer or lute textures. Meanwhile, an asymmetric tabla rhythm provides a shifting base upon which the sluicing, glottal-stopping reed and the restful guitar licks extend the theme, with one often playing a phrase which is then echoed by the other.

When Chatterjee alters his touch so that only one of the two drums is in use, producing what sounds like mouth percussion pops, Harris continues with his slurred fingering, while Rothenberg outlines a lilting yet grainy exposition. As his coloratura vibrato toughens, the other varies his tabla beats as the piece takes on a low-pitched sonority to its end.

Instrumental virtuosity and the tabla’s intonation on the second tune bring not Havens, but the deceased fusion string explorer Sandy Bull to mind as the trio plays. Someone aiming for the great folk-jazz-world music fusion in the early 1960s, Bull’s work encompassed the almost pure chromatic picking the guitarist shows here. Forty years on however, the percussionist’s double timed and splayed paradiddles and rebounds are more sophisticated than those with which Bull was dealing. Chatterjee manages to get different beats and textures from the bayan and dayan separately and together. The smeary alto sax trills add another dimension to this composition, and by the finale, Harris’ waggish finger picking and string taps are more original that what was imagined in the folk era.

Rothenberg’s one shakuhachi outing, mixed with thumb-popping bass guitar work may be a little torpid and formalistic for the CD, though there’s no argument with his expertise –or that of either of the others.

Among themselves they produce tones that at various points range from flutter tongued, funky sax lines or fralicher phraseology from the clarinet; rhythmic chanting and hand-clapping or double-palmed percussive thump and resonation; and frailing drones or bouncing distortion from the strings.

Whether your interest is ethnic music or improvisation, you’ll find much to relish on both these CD’s, especially Sync’s session.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Harbinger: 1. March Hair 2. Richie Havens 3. One-Oh-Nine 4. Phrygian Dreams 5. Miss Chief 6. Tsuruta Kinshi 7. Kashmir 8. Macrame

Personnel: Harbinger: Ned Rothenberg (clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone and shakuhachi); Jerome Harris (acoustic guitar and acoustic bass guitar); Samir Chatterjee (tabla)

Track Listing: Mother: 1. The Preserver 2. English 3. Kannada 4. Gujarati 5. Telugu 6. Circus 7. Konkani 8. Tamil 9. Malayalam 10. Change of Perspective

Personnel: Mother: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone); Vijay Iyer (piano); François Moutin (bass); Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums)