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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Roopa Mahedevan is an in-demand Carnatic vocalist on the New York music scene, as well as around the U.S. and India. She sings regularly with a variety of Bharathanatyam dance productions and artists, and is herself a trained Bharathanatyam dancer. Roopa is the artistic director of the Navatman Music Collective, an Indian Classical Vocal ensemble, founded in 2014 by Sahi Sambamoorthy. The Collective released its first album, An Untimely Joy, in 2016.  Roopa is a core member of Brooklyn Raga Massive, who are joining her in hosting two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, July 21st, as part of their “Raga Roots” series. For her Jazz Gallery debut Roopa will be joined by Anjna Swaminathan on violin and Abhinav Seetharaman on mridangam.

Roopa has a full-time job in public health policy, and wields degrees in biology and cognitive science. We caught up with her at a Midtown Manhattan coffee shop, in between her day job and her evening rehearsal, and chatted about the various projects she’s involved in, and about the challenges and opportunities that arise when playing Carnatic music in shifting settings.

The Jazz Gallery: Could you start by setting the stage for this upcoming show at the Gallery?

Roopa Mahadevan: It’s going to be pretty much a traditional Carnatic concert. I’ll be singing Carnatic vocal music. On the violin is Anjna Swaminathan. And on the mridangam, or double-headed percussion, is Abhinav Seetharaman. Carnatic musicians often don’t rehearse ahead of time, or make decisions collaboratively before they get on stage. Often the “main artist”—in this case it’s a vocal concert, so the vocalist becomes the main artist—will have a sense of what they want to do, but they may not necessarily tell the accompanists ahead of time. Because if you are a professional Carnatic artist, you’ve already spent years and years learning the technique and repertoire, so even if you don’t know a specific song, if you know the raga, or the scale, and the tala, or the rhythmic structure, you should be able to just go with it.

It’s interesting because it’s an hour-long set, which is short for Carnatic concerts. If you want to do full justice to all of the options that are available in a Carnatic concert, you could do a two-and-a-half-hour, three-hour concert. So it’s actually kind of an interesting challenge, to do this kind of music, in a setting like The Jazz Gallery, because—how do I include all of the elements I want to include in an hour? But I also think that all of us want to go deeper into the pieces that we do. There is sort of a trend in Carnatic music to amass as much as you can and then kind of vomit it all out, and I actually think there’s a lot of value in being patient with how you treat a particular piece. So this [shorter set] will help me actually, to do that.

The other interesting thing about this gig is that there are two sets. And that’s really weird for us. You don’t do two sets! So I have to decide—am I doing two different sets, or the same set twice? That’s what happens, though, when you do this music in a different kind of cultural context, these issues come up. And I would also just add that my generation of Carnatic musicians, and those of us that are not so tied to all the cultural constraints of performing it in India, for example, we share our set ahead of time. Because we want everyone to be at their best. So this idea of surprising the violinist—“hey you didn’t know I was going to do that!”—it doesn’t mean much. I’d rather us all be able to enjoy everything when we’re on stage. Knowing that the other musicians are happy and confident gives me confidence. It feels like we’re in it together as a team.

TJG: Have the three of you played together as a group before?

RM: Anjna and I have played together many times. Abhinav is very busy—he’s as student at Columbia—it’s hard to track him down. The last time we all played together actually was for my group, Navatman Music Collective. I composed a tillana, a little rhythmic piece. We had Abhinav, Anjna, and then a Portuguese guitarist, Pedro Henriques da Silva.

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Abhik Mukherjee and Sameer Gupta. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Beginning with a humble jam session that today has become something much more, Brooklyn Raga Massive is an open collective of curious musicians dedicated to bringing Indian classical music to life. The Massive also regularly programs events, one of which will be held at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday. Master sitarist Abhik Mukherjee and jazz drummer/tabla player Sameer Gupta will sit down for an open musical dialogue, performing pieces from the classical idiom, more contemporary ragas, and even some original music within the fabric of the tradition. We spoke at length with both Mukherjee and Gupta about the magic of New York, the growth of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and the vast similarities between Indian classical and jazz.

The Jazz Gallery: We’re looking forward to having you both at The Jazz Gallery! What does it mean to you, personally, to be playing Indian classical music at a jazz club?

Abhik Muhkerjee: I’m really excited to play. Jazz and Indian classical music go together in so many improvisational aspects. As far as my knowledge goes, the two share modal structures, thematic improvisation, improvisation on two notes, between two structures. There are rules and restrictions within both traditions, especially Indian classical, but within that, the sky’s the limit.

TJG: So what will you be playing at The Jazz Gallery?

Sameer Gupta: When we booked the show, Abhik and I said, “We’re in New York City, this is a jazz club, there may be a gap to bridge.” Your average jazz fan might love high energy and virtuosity, and I sometimes wonder whether they know how amazing Indian classical music is on all the same levels. These musicians have the ability to play with unbelievable polyrhythms and layers, things which are so appealing in jazz. We want to show how exciting this music is, it’s really quite something to watch.

AM: So in the first set, I will be playing a pure classical raga, with a short talk beforehand about how it’s improvised and what’s going on. In the second set, I have composed a raga, so I will be playing that to show how classical music is open to new compositions. The structure and scope never change, it has been the same for thousands of years, but the style of performance and improvisation continues to change. But the structure never changes. Do you know what I mean?

TJG: Not exactly. Tell me more.

AM: When you play a raga, you do the introductory part without the tabla. There is gradual stylistic development, a gradual introduction of the themes. You slowly introduce your raga to the audience. How does the raga behave? We don’t treat it as a fixed structure of notes. It has a soul. It comes to power, you watch it flourish. So then, we start developing. There’s a rhythmic section, but still with no percussion. We develop it, and then play with the tabla a cycle of maybe sixteen beats, ten beats, seven beats, it depends. Like jazz, there are so many rhythmic cycles. And also, finally, I think I will be concluding with a raga in which the performer uses all twelve notes. Not erratically, there is a format, but the lessons I’ve learned from jazz, I can use them here to develop a structure, to demonstrate similarity between the genres.

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Photo courtesy of the artist.

Arun Ramamurthy navigates both jazz and Indian Classical circles. He’s a Carnatic violinist with a vested interest in improvisation and broadening musical horizons. Not only is he the co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and he also plays music that he calls “jazz carnatica” in a trio setting.

Ramamurthy and his trio, featuring Michael Gam on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums, will play two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th. We caught up with Arun by phone to discuss the different musical worlds he navigates and the way he finds his voice and a cohesive community in performance.

The Jazz Gallery: Your trio plays jazz carnatica; that’s also the title of your record. What does that mean to you?

Arun Ramamurthy: Basically, the music is drawing from the Carnatic repertoire. So a lot of the compositions we’re doing are actually part of the traditional songs of South Indian classical music, and we recontextualize the music within this jazz trio—a lot of the elements of jazz, or other styles of music that don’t exist in Carnatic music like ensemble playing. Playing a role, collectively making the sounds together, is what I also want to experiment with in this trio—how each person can kind of bring things to the table. In Carnatic music a lot of times the violinist would shadow a vocalist or the percussionist, and the percussionist is also shadowing and playing to this one sound; there’s this one linear movement as opposed to everyone playing their own role and together it becomes this one sound as a band.

I also try to see into these Carnatic songs and view it from a different place, a different perspective. There are certain songs, apart from compositions, that can be explored, and when a bass line is put behind it and Sameer [Gupta] and [regular bassist] Perry [Wortman] are hearing in one way, we can vibe and vamp on something that creates a whole new atmosphere within a song that didn’t always have that. I’m trying explore the Carnatic songs that have existed for a long time, and breathe a little new life into them from my own perspective.

TJG: There are also new compositions that you play.

AR: Yeah. Many of those songs, I’m using rhythmic concepts that exist in Carnatic music, and then using that as a foundation for these new compositions, moving between different rhythmic concepts. There will be some rhythm in the bass and the melody on top of that, different repeating patterns that sit over the time cycle. I’ll usually pick a raga, a scale that I want to write in. And I’ll pick a thala, the time signature that I want to write in. So there’s a rhythmic landscape that rides underneath and then the melody is kind of sitting on top, and then we interact and play with each other, adding another dimension.

A lot of this Carnatic training has helped me seeing things rhythmically in a different way than a jazz musician might. But it would all make sense to both of us, and we would all feel it in a different way. That’s the excitement: we feel things in different ways, and the result is surprising. I think the original songs especially, I think they’re really drawn from the experience of playing with these guys and what they would feel and how they would feel certain things. I find that some of the inspirations come from all the different artists that I end up collaborating with. You hear certain things that really make sense to you, and then I try to incorporate that into my own language, and when you internalize that it comes out as you, but you’re still coming from the root of Carnatic music.

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Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Percussionist, composer, and improviser Rajna Swaminathan is a trailblazer in the fields of South Indian traditional music and beyond. Not only is Swaminathan one of only a few female mrudangam players in the world, she has expanded her art to encompass diverse forms of improvisation. Over the past several years, Swaminathan has been exploring this netherworld between musical styles with her group RAJAS, which features a rotating cast of top New York improvisers. This week, Swaminathan and RAJAS will make their debut at The Jazz Gallery, performing two sets of music. We caught up with her last week to hear about how she thinks about combining different musical traditions and the complex gender politics of her varied musical communities.

The Jazz Gallery: You have performed in classical South Indian concerts, with different jazz musicians, and with dance and theatre companies.  How does your foundational background in South Indian Carnatic music affect the way you approach working with dance groups, and jazz and other creative improvisational settings?

Rajna Swaminathan: The dance company that I work with is called Ragamala, and they are a South Indian dance company.  There is a branch of carnatic music that is used to accompany Bharatanatyam which is the South Indian dance style. So in that case it’s pretty much seamless, it is using the vocabulary that is traditionally used, but they also do a lot of collaborative projects with different genres of music.  So for those productions, it involves some more creative thinking, using a foundation in Carnatic music. And depending on who’s the collaborator—like, we’ve worked with Taiko drummers before, there was one project with Rudresh Mahanthappa, so that was jazz, and the most recent one was with Amir ElSaffar composing, so he brought some stuff from the Maqam tradition. So it just involves months of trying to figure out musically what’s going to work.  Also, dancers have a very specific relationship with my instrument, mrudangam, with the specific footwork in South Indian dance, so we have to try to work the music for that to match up and also to be musically somewhat seamless.

As far as the jazz scene, I’ve been a little more intensely involved over the past few years, since about 2011 I would say. I started working with Steve Coleman, so he was the first person to get me thinking outside of my perspective. There’s a kind of fusion that happens when people are just playing what they would normally play in their traditions, almost like autopilot, tracking against each other, but he was against that approach. He was like, you really have to learn how to think polyrhythmically if you’re going to be playing with jazz musicians. And there are some related concepts in South Indian music, but it involves some work and rewiring and it’s mostly been work on listening, and being able to hear.

South Indian music is so linear.  There’s usually a singer, mrudangam player, and violinist, and you’re usually expected to match each other and mirror each other almost phrase for phrase, anticipating what the other person is going to do. So the emphasis isn’t really on this polyphonic sound at all. For me to even get into the jazz scene, I had to be able to hear multiple things going on that are complementary to each other, but not in one stream of musical thought. So it required some work, directly working with Steve, and some other folks on the scene, like Vijay Iyer. At first I was just curious about this music, and I spent my undergrad studying anthropology, so I got some research funding to actually spend a Summer in New York and do field work. During that summer I got together with several drummers and musicians all in this creative music scene, went out to listen to a lot of music—a lot at the Jazz Gallery actually—just to get this music in my body, because I didn’t grow up listening to a lot of jazz, and I was very interested in learning more and being a part of the scene.

It’s really become like a home for me. I still do traditional Carnatic music gigs every once and a while, I travel to India and do that, and I’m obviously involved with the dance company, but this has been another way for me to feel at home in music, in the creative music scene. Of course, not everyone is looking for a mrudangam player, so at first it was hard to find work, and find situations where people were willing to spend the time and really write parts that made sense for me, or had the time to work on it, how would you fit a mrudangam into this context. So in 2013 I started this band, with the idea that I would write my own music, and I would try to curate my own group so that I could experiment with how I would carve out a space for myself in the creative music scene, like how would I structure things. It was just a way of running through different ideas and working with musicians that I really resonated with, and try to learn in the process. This ensemble that I have now has been three years of working with different configurations and learning the whole time, how to come from the foundation that I started with, and bring it into this completely different scene, with different sensibilities and aesthetics.

TJG: Can you talk a little bit about how you approach composition with your group RAJAS, which is a very cross-cultural improvisation based group?

RS: So basically every time there has been a slightly different instrumentation, but this particular group, we’ve been playing together for the past year or so, and I find that it’s been a really solid group of people, and compositionally it ends up reflecting who’s in the band. I compose these sort of frameworks, more or less, melodic, and to some extent harmonic and rhythmic frameworks, and it’s not so much a traditional jazz composition to play through everything and have these set solo sections, but the whole thing is like this world that you can enter, and everyone is expected to collectively improvise. It’s highly textural and involves a lot of rehearsal and finding those spaces that work best for different instruments and different people. And as I’ve been doing more shows with the group, it influences how I write, and how I direct them, and get directed by them. And I’ve worked in the past with folks like Amir ElSaffar, and Miles and Stephan, who are in this group, and they’re  all senior musicians that have a lot of experience not only in their field, but also collaborating outside their field. Miles actually has a lot of experience with South Indian rhythms, so that’s a great anchoring force in the group. I’ve been learning a lot in terms of not just composing but also curating improvisation within the group, which I think is where the focus is really at in my band.

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Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Raga Massive.

Some 55 years after John Coltrane began his foray into the study of Indian classical music, cultural exchange between raga and jazz culture is flourishing within the borough of Brooklyn. Brooklyn Raga Massive was founded in 2012 with the aims of both bringing classical Indian music to a new audience, and updating the music itself to match the time and setting. These simultaneous backward and forward-looking impulses will be on display at The Gallery on August 10, when the Massive will present two distinct sets, including a workshop.

The Massive draw from a myriad of sources: Hindustani music of northern India, John Coltrane, George Harrison & the Beatles, and modern Western classical composers like Terry Riley. Of course, Ravi Shankar has an outsized influence on the group. And as opposed to the guru-driven hierarchy typically found in Indian musical studies, the collective prides itself on being collaborative and democratic, and hosts open jam sessions on a regular basis.

The early set will feature a face familiar to The Jazz Gallery: drummer Dan Weiss, who will man the tabla along with singer Samarth Nagarkar and Rohan Prabhudesai on harmonium. The late set features a group called DRONE GHOST, which consists of Kane Mathis on kora and oud, Joshua Geisler on bansuri flute, Max ZT on hammer dulcimer, and Rich Stein on percussion and hydra, an instrument of Stein’s own design. (more…)