Oded Tzur, a New York based, Tel Aviv born tenor saxophonist, has been intensively studying Indian classical music since 2007 with Hariprasad Chaurasia, master of the Indian bamboo flute known as the bansuri. He and his jazz quartet bring that sensibility to Tzur’s ECM debut, evocatively titled Here Be Dragons. What that title evokes, of course, is the (perhaps mythical) late Medieval world maps that featured that phrase in parts of the globe not yet explored by Europeans. It gives the album a sense of that going forward into unknown parts, which is what this quartet is doing, subtly.
The quartet comprises Tzur on sax, fellow Israeli Nitai Hershkovitz on piano, Greek bassist Petros Klampanis and U.S. drummer Johnathan Blake. The latter is a relative newcomer, but Tzur, Hershkovitz and Klampanis have been playing together for quite some time, and it shows. Musical sympatico is critical to creating the kind of music Tzur has in mind, and they have it.
Plenty of other musicians these days are blending ragas and jazz, each in their own way. Tzur’s way is to develop “miniature ragas” played by the sax and piano over a “moving bass,” blending raga and jazz principles. The raga-ness of these pieces is subtle, such that I probably wouldn’t have picked it up for a long time if it hadn’t been pointed out in the one-sheet. The pieces they play are three by Tzur — “Here Be Dragons,” “20 Years” and “The Dream,” plus “To Hold Your Hand “which uses an Indian scale called Charukesi and operates on similar principles.” There are three short pieces (all less than three minutes) called “Miniatures,” solo turns for sax, piano and bass, and the album finishes with a soothing cover of the Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love.”
If I were to listen to Here Be Dragons without knowing anything about it, I’d probably guess that it was a leader date for bassist Klampanis. He really is that prominent. Driving the pieces’ forward motion, contributing at least equally to the harmonic development, really fleshing out these otherwise minimalist pieces while still leaving room for Tzur’s subtle and evocative reedwork and Hershkovitz’s classic piano approach.
“The Dream” is the most raga-like of these tracks, to my ear. It has a complex time signature, its rhythm driven in equal parts by Hershkovitz’s insistent left-hand work, that constantly moving bass, and a frenetic drum approach by Blake that walks the line between free jazz and tabla. The melodic lines that the piano and especially Tzur’s horn float over that driving rhythm are definitely raga-like, and it’s here I came to appreciate Tzur’s almost non-existent attack on the notes he plays. He truly does evoke the gentle and bendable sound of the bansuri with his utterly controlled embrasure and breath, such that sometimes you can’t really pinpoint where the silence ends and the note begins.
“To Hold Your Hand” at times sounds quite like a modern, post-bop improvisation, particularly Hershkovitz’s exploratory solo turn. Except it’s in seven beats. Listen closely for some superb unison playing by bass and piano.
Then go back and re-listen to the title track and “20 years.” Both are quiet, bluesy-sounding late-night jazz types of songs, but there’s a lot going on under that placid surface; intricate piano voicings and chording, subtle and complex use of Blake’s kit, and once again Klampanis’s masterful bass lines. And you realize that this isn’t some variant of smooth jazz, just utterly controlled melodicism.
One of the best ways to listen to any jazz record is to closely listen to each part, and then to their interplay, and then to the whole. That applies to a record like Here Be Dragons even more than most. Here’s a short teaser video.