I love jazz violin and I love Carnatic music – classical music from the south of India. So I figured I would love this album by Indian jazz violinist Arun Ramamurthy, and I was right. It’s been on heavy rotation ever since I got it.
What Ramamurthy is doing is taking actual ragas from South Indian classical music and exploring them from within the structure of a jazz trio, with drummer Sameer Gupta and bassist Perry Wortman. You’ve heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue described as “modal jazz?” Well Indian classical music is the original modal music, in which the players explore all the nuances of what in Western music is called a key signature – developing it melodically and rhythmically with a certain amount of improvisation around the existing themes. Sounds a lot like what certain kinds of jazz does, doesn’t it?
That’s what makes this particular hybrid so effective. Ramamurthy and his combo don’t try to “make” jazz into a raga, or a raga into jazz, but rather explore the two forms together. “My concept with these pieces is to stay true to the raga, to stay true to the spirit of the Carnatic compositions,” says Ramamurthy in the one-sheet that came with this recording. “We may deviate from conventional song stuctures, and sometimes what we play suggests chord progressions, but my melody always stays in the raga.” Which means they’re taking very old musical pieces and transforming them into a new setting.
What makes it work is the strength of this trio, which allows Ramamurthy’s violin to do its beautiful work within the sturdy foundation laid down by drummer Sameer Gupta and bassist Perry Wortman. Together they delve into all kinds of jazz variations, from the relatively straight-ahead setting of the opener “Dhanasri” and Ramamurthy’s very jazzy composition with a 10-beat rhythm, “Conception,” to the very classical-sounding “Govardhana” which has some additional strings and pianist Marc Cary on board, and the fusion-esque “4th Dimension,” with Cary on synth keys, and the truly joyous, polyrhythmic “Simple Joys”. Here’s a streaming version of “Dhanasri”:
Jazz Carnatica is a truly joyous melding of two musical traditions that, it turns out, are quite sympathetic in the right hands. I look forward to hearing more from this exciting trio.
The Arun Ramamurthy Trio has a website.