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Vijay Iyer and Dr. L Subramaniam fuse jazz and Indian music into a propulsive and nuanced whole

Violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam in deep conversation with pianist Vijay Iyer. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Best of India, Best of Jazz
Vijay Iyer and Dr. L. Subramaniam
Harold Shenkman Hall
Shenkman Arts Centre, Ottawa
Saturday, September 5, 2015 – 7 p.m.

View photos of this performance

Growing up in the U.S. as the son of immigrants from India, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer was always aware of Indian classical music – and in particular the Carnatic tradition from south India and one of its major exemplars, violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam.

That life-long influence made Saturday's concert at the Shenkman Arts Centre particularly special. He told the audience that, while he had known Subramaniam for some time in person, this was the first time they had had a chance to work together. He sounded delighted at the prospect.

Both Iyer and Subramaniam have worked in cross-cultural contexts before: in 2011, Iyer released Tirtha, a trio album with Indian guitarist/composer Prasanna, and tablaist Nitin Mitta. Earlier this year, he played six nights in a Manhattan club with two Carnatic-trained musicians on violin and Indian percussion. He's also released several albums with Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa.

For several decades, Subramaniam, who was trained in both the classical Indian and classical Western traditions, has been been performing “Global Fusion” concerts – combining Indian music with Western, and often jazz, music, and performing with everyone from Stéphane Grappelli to Larry Coryell to Herbie Hancock.

The day before this concert, Subramaniam performed with renowned jazz saxophonist Ernie Watts and other Western and Indian musicians in Montreal in a “fusion extravaganza of Indian and jazz music”. He would repeat that concert with Watts and a slightly different line-up of musicians the day after in Toronto. All three concerts were organized by the Montreal-based Kabir Centre, which works to unite communities through culture.

The concert opened with a half-hour solo piano set by Iyer, followed by Subramaniam playing Indian classical music together with his son, Ambi Subramaniam, on violin and Mahesh Krishnamurthy on percussion, and then with all four performing together.

Iyer opened with a lesser-known piece by “my hero” Thelonious Monk. The original version of “Work” features a playful and unpredictable bright melody over deep bass chords, moving quickly through many changes. Iyer gave it a much more dramatic – and less “Monkish” – reading, with intense lines over deep bass chords. The brightness and Monk-like angular notes peeked through occasionally, but in general it felt almost martial in tone, with tension building up and being released. It was a highly exploratory version, with many vibrating and repeated notes, at times reminding me of hard raindrops against a window, and at other times becoming more delicate, like a bare tracery of music.

He followed that with one of his own compositions, “Spellbound And Sacrosanct”, which he originally wrote 20 years ago but revived as a solo piano piece on his 2014 ECM album Mutations. Beginning with quiet, echoing flurries of notes, it contained Billy-Strayhorn-like melodic passages, but also deconstructed sections where the melody only glinted through. It had a wide dynamic range that included deep rumbling bass chords to gleaming glissandos, and moved through many thoughtful changes throughout its performance.

His last solo piece – which received by far the most applause from the audience – was “Black and Tan Fantasy” by Duke Ellington. Like his other pieces, it was full of drama and resonance, containing rippling explorations of melody followed by hard-edged notes. Bright and charming with bluesy overtones, it ended with a strong flourish.

Dr. L. Subramaniam followed with his trio, playing music based on classical Carnatic ragas. While the ragas provide a strong framework for the music in terms of the scale, the modes of playing, and the secondary notes, they also allow for considerable improvisation.

Providing a base for the music was an electrically-produced drone, whose very slight variations repeated in a short cycle. On top of that, for most of the music, were the strongly flowing and propulsive rhythms provided by percussionist Mahesh Krishnamurthy. Krishnamurthy plays mridangam, a double-headed south Indian drum, one of whose heads is treble and the other bass. (Krishnamurthy said afterwards that he deepened the bass sound by applying a paste of Cream of Wheat in places on the bass drum head.) The melody – and often even more percussion – were provided by Subramaniam and his son Ambi on violin.

They began with a raga by an 18th century composer, giving it an exploratory treatment. Subramaniam opened with solo violin, playing a delicate, clear melody, strongly Indian in style. It circled, it moved from high to low and then back again, it contained many vibrating lines which shimmered through the hall. The music changed constantly, becoming more attenuated and then faster and circling, before ending lightly.

Their second, longer piece started with a haunting melody on both violins. It was supported by a strong riffs on mridangam, which became increasingly intricate and separated into bass and treble lines. The piece featured an extended conversation between Subramaniam and his son, each responding to and building on the other's lines, before ending in an intense duet which built to a bravura finale. The audience responded with strong applause and a partial standing ovation.

For the second half of the concert, Iyer joined Subramaniam – first as a duo, and then with all four performers on the stage.

They first played “Eclipse”, a composition based on a classic raga. Subramaniam opened with a nuanced, light line on violin, to which Iyer responded first with light, rippling piano notes. Then came deeper, more dramatic passage on piano, to which Subramaniam answered with vibrating and flowing violin. It was a spare, exploratory piece, which felt to me much like a free jazz performance. Both performers appeared at first to be feeling each other out, with quick lines followed by silence, and became more comfortable throughout the piece with ribbons of notes on violin being followed by almost-19th century romantic passages on piano. The fusion of Indian and Western influences was notable through the piece, which ended with two performers looking at each other, playing a few quiet notes, and stopping.

Throughout the piece, the electronic drone was playing, although at times Subramaniam turned it down somewhat. Although this may have been important for the raga, I found that it was drowning out the piano in quiet passages and distracting from the music in others; it felt overall unnecessary. Perhaps if the drone had been provided by an actual performer who could have responded to the music more quickly and stopped playing when necessary, it might have worked better?

For the final piece, Ambi Subramaniam and Krishnamurthy came back on stage, for an improvised piece based on a five-beat raga. It began with thoughtful, punctuated piano lines, solo to start and then with Subramaniam adding full-voiced, melancholy violin. It was a more dramatic piece – sparkling and almost swinging in places – with Iyer's percussive approach contrasting with long flowing lines on violin. On each iteration, the music subtly mutated, eventually becoming almost as dramatic as Iyer's opening set. Ambi Subramaniam and Krishnamurthy eventually joined in, adding a fuller, almost dancing feel to the music. It became more propulsive and faster, building up the joint rhythms, and then ended abruptly. The audience greeted it with an immediate standing ovation.

The show attracted an audience both from local jazz fans and from the local east Indian community, who were highly attentive (the only extraneous noise was the occasional cough) and clearly interested in the music.

Perhaps one of the factors which worked for this diverse audience was the similar approach that both Iyer and Subramaniam took to their music. Starting with a framework – jazz pieces for Iyer, ragas for Subramaniam – they let the music evolve, each section naturally coming out of the last in a nuanced manner, and repeatedly moved into new and interesting places while never completely losing the thread to the beginning. It was a concert that repaid very close listening, and left me feeling almost drained with its intensity by the time the final notes were played.

Subramaniam thanked the audience at the end: “We tried all our experiments on you. Looks like it's working. I'm sure you'll hear more of us.”

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015