Fusionists

By JON GARELICK  |  January 12, 2010

Song of the Swan owes its unity to the long-time relationships of the musicians and to a bedrock of a shared jazz sensibility ("jazz with influences . . . "). "By this point, I'm playing to everyone's strengths," Scarff tells me when we get together for tea in Inman Square. "Steve Gorn [guesting on soprano and bamboo flute] on the Hindustani material — especially since he toured with us playing that material — and Matt on the African pieces." The latter, with their freer harmonic and rhythmic schemes, suit Maneri's free-jazz aptitude. Another guest, V.K. Raman, joins with bamboo flute on the South Indian raga-based title track, which is from the Carnatic tradition. "Raman is a fantastic Carnatic musician," says Scarff. "It's this nine-beat rhythm — 2 + 2 + 2 + 3 — but for him it's like playing 4/4 swing."

Speaking of which: "Bageshri-Bageshwari," with Scarff and Gorn on soprano, conjures Coltrane swing. "For some reason, 'Bageshri' [a classic northern raga] feels good in swing — I don't know why."

Of course, ever since Coltrane first incorporated some of what he'd heard Ravi Shankar playing, Indian music — with its complex grooves and free-flying scalar melodic improvisations — has been part of the jazz language. And over the past five years, young South Asian–American musicians like Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Rez Abbasi have been redefining the fusion of jazz with music of the Subcontinent.

"What's cool about this is that everyone has his own approach," says Scarff. "It's still all so new that there's not much of a tradition to fall back on, like, 'Okay, let's learn bebop,' and then let's learn this or that. So everybody's inventing their own way of doing this." Still, he allows, when he's listening to Mahanthappa, a Coloradan who's studied in Southern India, he's perplexed. "He's a great player, but it's not obvious to me what he's drawing on from Carnatic music. Which isn't to say that he's not doing it, and it's not great, but sometimes I just don't quite get it."

I wonder whether that isn't the point. In some of the most beautiful moments of Song of the Swan — the overlapping improvised lines of Scarff's soprano and Gorn's flute in "Raga Ahir Bhairav," or the free-time floating drones and twining melodies of viola, soprano sax, and bass in the midst of "The Ride" — genre distinctions dissolve into nameless pleasure. But maybe I'm just hearing it all as jazz.

NATRAJ | Scullers, 400 DoubleTree Guest Suites Hotel, Soldiers Field Road, Boston | January 20 | 8 pm | $18 | 617.562.4111 or www.scullersjazz.com

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