Climbing the Banyan Tree
Clean Feed CF 030 CD

Five years into the 21st century, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the old definitions of jazz and improvised music are relaxing. Besides the many artists in other countries who are adding their own cultural references to the sounds, there are players such as the members of the Tarana trio, children or grandchildren of recent immigrants, who mingle their own cultural references with the African-American basis of jazz.

Take the band’s name for instance. Not a misspelling of the capital of Albania (Tirana) or the local mispronunciation of the name of the largest city in Canada (Toronto), tarana is actually an Indian vocal style based upon the use of meaningless syllables in a very fast rendition. Although band leader, percussionist Ravish Momin, exhibits the style only once, on “String Drum Tarana” – albeit briefly at that – it’s an indication of his roots and world view.

Someone who has garnered acclaim for his drumming with the bands of saxophonists Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre and Sabir Mateen, Momin, who attended Carnegie Mellon University, studied drum set with Andrew Cyrille, Bob Moses and other jazzers as well as ethnic percussion with teachers who were disciples of Zakir Hussain, and Pandit Taranth Rao. His associates have just as varied backgrounds. Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, who plays bass and oud, studied music in Israel as well as the United States and has played with Mateen and recorded with New York multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter. Veteran of this band, violinist Jason Kao Hwang has been involved with cross-cultural melding for decades. He was part of the improv Far East Side Band whose members played traditional Asian instruments. At the same time he’s long been immersed in Free Jazz having been part of groups led by bassist William Parker and tenor saxophonist Ivo Perelman

Each influence modifies Hwang’s contributions here. At points, for example, he spins out taut, ululating lines that could come from a Chinese erhu, at others takes on the timbres of a three-string kamantche or Iranian fiddle. Elsewhere his glissandi on violin can be as swingingly sweet as Stéphane Grappelli’s or as sweepingly expansive – with triple stopping — as Billy Bang’s.

A four square bassist whose thumping walking helps define the rhythm of these nine tracks, Blumenkranz’s accompaniment can be as focused and unyielding as Jimmy Garrison’s with the Coltrane Quartet or be filled with atonal splintered cadences when he solos. Adapting finger picking, claw-hammer downstrokes and slurred fingering to five-string oud techniques, his expression is traditional at times, but just as likely to be Eurasian or pure American jazz elsewhere. With Hwang’s stinging playing often harsh and echoing, there are times when ascribing certain tones to one stringed instrument is difficult. It could be the sound of a string band playing on the Mongolian plain.

Momin adds to the amiable mystification on “String Drum Tarana” when his tarana vocalization and Indian clave pattern is succeeded by what sounds like lute strums which join with scraping squeaks from percussion.

In contrast, a tune such as “Gathering Song” finds him switching from tabla-like polyrhythms at the beginning to clave-focused Latinesque beat with hands and sticks later on. Hwang’s sweet elaboration of the melody arises with erhu timbres, builds up to willowing tones and triple stopping. Climaxing in a combination of descending and ascending texture intensification from all three, the composition maintains the convention of Western jazz as Hwang reprises the head for the finale.

As pitches and tempos vary here, the percussionist’s trick bag includes supple, hand beats from double-headed drums, amplified with rattles, so that Momin could be playing zarb or dumbek. His polyrhythms can be as intensive and percussive as Elvin Jones’ with Trane, or he can produce paradiddles as unyielding as anything in marital music, but used to make a point.

Need more convincing? “Peace for Kabul”, the sentiments of which could probably be extended to other spots in the Middle East, follows the theme-elaboration-theme Western convention, yet in-between that oud and hand drums seems to elaborate a traditional Arab line, except for the points where there’s an undercurrent of Eastern European Jewish music apparent.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Dai Genyo 2. Weeping Statue 3. Instance of Memory 4. Peace for Kabul 5. Gyarah 6. Song at Dusk 7. String Drum Tarana 8. Gathering Song 9. Parting with a View

Personnel: Jason Kao Hwang (violin); Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz (bass and oud); Ravish Momin (drums, percussion and voice)