Natraj and friends expand their neighborhoods
By JON GARELICK  |  January 12, 2010

BORDER CROSSING: The influences are jazz, Indian, and African, but the country is Natraj's own.

Nobody likes labels — except maybe critics. ("Nouns are names, and can be libelous," the composer and critic Virgil Thomson once warned.) And we all want to live by Duke Ellington's measure of quality: beyond category. Beyond names and borders, that is, in a post-racial society. And yet, the word "fusion" — at least in music — has a pejorative connotation, suggesting bland pastiche and commercial opportunism.

Composer and saxophonist Phil Scarff has led the Boston band Natraj — who play a CD-release party at Scullers this Wednesday — since 1987, and their most recent couple of albums have displayed the legend "Contemporary jazz with influences from India and Africa." For all that time, Scarff has been trying to have it both ways: creating a music that crosses borders but with clear musical-cultural signifiers, and working in clearly identifiable traditions. Natraj's latest, Song of the Swan (Galloping Goat), shows them working at a peak, creating an integral sound that crosses those borders without a bump.

The initial, title track, with its tamboura drone and percolating tabla, signals "India!" But as the album moves through different regions and tribes of West Africa ("The Ride," with its references to the Dagomba people of Ghana, and "Kpegisu Suite," with rhythms from the Ewe of Ghana and Togo) to the final North Indian raga, you may find yourself losing sight of those borders, and transported to a country that is none other than Natraj's own. The mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments — Western soprano sax and double bass, viola, trap drums, tabla, and bamboo flute — along with smart writing and virtuoso playing creates a fluid cosmopolitan sound without erasing cultural distinctions.

Scarff and percussionist Jerry Leake began playing together in 1986, after Scarff, an ecumenical jazz musician, had come back from his first trip to India. At first, they were interested only in playing North Indian classical music, but then they discovered they had a common background in West African drumming. They decided to combine the three streams — jazz, Indian, African. Leake suggested bassist Mike Rivard. Scarff tried to recruit a tamboura player for the traditional grounding drone figure of Indian music, but as he soon discovered, "No one wants to play just tamboura." So soon the band had a second melody instrument — usually a guitar — and then a second percussionist. By the end of 1994, the personnel had settled: Scarff, Leake, Rivard, violinist/violist Matt Maneri, and drummer Bertram Lehmann, with occasional guests and substitutes. (At Scullers, Scarff, Leake, Rivard, and Lehman will be joined by frequent guest guitarist Prasanna.)

The success of some fusions depends on which part of the equation you favor. For instance, the same night that Natraj play Scullers, the bluegrass banjoist Jayme Stone comes to the Regattabar with a band based on his collaboration with kora player and griot Mansa Sissoko, Africa to Appalachia. This is a perfectly lovely release, but I tend to favor the Africa part, where Stone and his crew subordinate their bluegrass-honed improvisations to Sissoko's playing and singing. Rivard's Club d'Elf (which includes Leake) centers its jammy sensibility on Moroccan music and Jamaican dub. On his new Cubist (Rhombus Publishing), Leake, playing with various studio configurations rather than a working band, is happy to assemble a track-by-track mosaic (as implied by the album title), from jazz-rock guitar over Turkish music (with Randy Roos and Will Graef) to African drums with jazz horns (arranged by Ken Schaphorst). Meanwhile, the jazz guitarist Julian Lage — who's equally drawn to bluegrass and classical — is with his quintet creating a sui generis fusion that lives pretty much in his head and those of his four bandmates.

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