Given the nature of Indian instruments, which are not designed for modulating or playing chord changes, most collaborations between Indian and jazz artists find the Indians with home field advantage; the jazz players have to adapt to them rather than the other way around. This frequently results in quasi-Indian forms, modal mainly, with complex rhythmic cycles borrowed from Indian drumming traditions.
Too often, jazz players are unable to come to grips with the subtleties and complexities of the main classical form of India, the raga. Deepak Ram's new release turns this situation on its head. A master of the Bansuri, or bamboo flute, and a disciple of its leading exponent Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ram has decided to play away from home, as it were -- tackling jazz, or jazz-based, material with a group of jazz musicians. The resulting music is quite remarkable.
The groundwork for this recording was set some years ago when an interviewer asked him about the relationship between jazz and Indian music. Deepak responded: "Jazz and Indian music have one thing in common: improvisation. The first American musicians to respond to the earliest Indian musicians that came to the West were jazz musicians. Miles and Coltrane were drawn to the improvisation." He went on to explain: "In Indian music you explore a raga for a length of time following melodic convention within a set group of notes. But in jazz the set of notes moves all the time. It's possible to play that way on the bansuri, but it's not designed that way. When you improvise in the raga system it is very concentrated. You explore one mood for as much as an hour in a concert. In a piece like 'Giant Steps' every four beats you have to think of something different because the chords are changing, the harmonies are different. It's a very tricky thing to do."
Having grown up in South Africa and lived in both India and the United States, Ram has been immersed in both jazz and Indian music, more so, perhaps, than most other Indian performers, and while the majority of his recordings have been in the classical tradition he has produced at least two crossover CDs, Flute For Thought and Beauty In Diversity. Steps is something else again.
To appreciate Ram's achievement it is necessary for the reader to understand how the bansuri is constructed. Essentially a simple bamboo tube roughly the size of an alto flute, with seven tone holes, the instrument has no key mechanism of any kind to help the player. All the subtle nuances required in Indian performance require great accuracy in the use of the fingers, closing and half closing the very large tone holes. And it is usually restricted to playing in one scale during an entire performance. To shift rapidly between keys, which is what playing changes amounts to, is, as Ram describes it, a very tricky thing to do.
Technical accomplishments, by themselves, are not sufficient to create good music; playing "Giant Steps" on the bansuri could be a mere novelty. But Ram does not try to sound like Hubert Laws playing "Moment's Notice," or Hariprasad playing Raga Yaman; he attempts to create something completely unique. The strength of the bamboo instrument lies in the wonderful warmth of its sound and the graceful swoops and slides -- glissandi and portamenti -- of which it is capable. Deepak takes these qualities and, quite simply, swoops and slides through the changes, laying his ornate lines over the more hard-edged accompaniment provided by his rhythm section. His choice of both instrumentation and personnel is critical in this regard. And Juris is the ideal foil for Ram here. He doesn't attempt to sound Indian. Rather he works from the jazz side of the relationship, retaining just the right amount of harmonic color with a touch of blues tonality. Haddad is equally adept at finding the right percussive touch and Marino is a secure anchor throughout.
From the outset, it is clear that Ram & Co. are going to approach the material in their own way. The Bossa Nova vamp that open the first track introduces their version of "Giant Steps" which is totally different than Coltrane's. This is followed by the first of Ram's original compositions, "Madiba's Dance," composed in honor of Nelson Mendala. With Juris laying out it has the feeling of a Bengali folk song. The other standards receive equally distinctive treatments while Ram's other original "Blues"and Darius Brubeck's "October" hover tantalizingly between Indian and jazz genres.
"The greatest thing gained by doing Steps is I have this newfound love for jazz," was Deepak's comments upon completing the session. " You can take ten jazz standards and spend your whole life on them, like ten ragas. It keeps evolving as you mature." Let's hope that Steps will lead jazz listeners to an equally open-minded exploration of Indian and other world music traditions.