Sandip Burman's all-star ensemble blew a cross-cultural wind into Milwaukee's Shank Hall on a hot August night. Sandip (pronounced San-deep) is a master tabla drummer from Calcutta, India. He used his energy and charm to convince some of fusion's biggest names to take a chance on playing his Indian music. The band's line up is: drummer Steve Smith (Journey/Vital Information), violinist Jerry Goodman (Mahavishnu Orchestra), harmonica and keyboardist Howard Levy (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report), and soprano saxophonist David Pietro (Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra).
This was the third date of their four-week tour. The band had met in Sandip's American base in Chicago for one day of intense rehearsals. "It's like going back to school," said Steve Smith, "you can't just groove." Howard Levy had written Sandip's music out in Western notation for the band and they were all reading from charts onstage. "It's a challenge," said bassist Bailey.
The first song had the band members keeping close eye contact with head and arm cues bringing in different sections. If they needed more rehearsal, it didn't show. Bailey and Smith locked into the odd meter groove and propelled the band. Goodman's violin, whether playing slow melodies or lightning fast runs, soared across the music. Peitro stood center stage and threw himself headfirst into the music, dancing and swaying. Levy blew a mean harmonica. Bending notes and playing in between the notes, he sounded like a cross between the blues and an Indian Raga. His solo burned and showed him to be one of the masters of the harmonica. On top of this, Sandip wove his intricate rhythms. Seated amid five small tabla drums, his fingers and hands were often a blur as he shook his head and smiled. After the song, he looked up and remarked, "I just learned a new word, groove. Right?"
Up next was Peitro's composition, "Phoenix Rising." Starting with a gentle piano/sax intro, Peitro built up the intensity. Having played in India, his sound was mournful and reminiscent of of an Indian snake charmer. The band then came in with a lush rhythmic feel in five. Bailey's slinky bass slid along on top of the percussion. A poignant moment came when the band dropped out, leaving the tabla and violin alone. Goodman's gorgeous violin floated on top of the melodic pitched rhythms of Burman.
Smith then delivered a tasteful drum solo played with mallets on his small, four-piece Sonor "Jungle Kit." His shifting rhythmic phrases added texture and density to his playing, showing he had already absorbed plenty of the eastern rhythmic concepts. Sandip started the next song off by singing rhythmic syllables. This is not "new age" music, but is rhythmically complex and based on Indian musical traditions going back hundreds, even thousands of years. Often all the instruments are playing the same rhythm in unison. The rhythm becomes the melody - the melody becomes the rhythm. Peitro and Burman worked through a series of breakneck stops and starts, furiously flying through the different rhythmic changes.
Even with all the musical density, this is often very delicate music. The mostly acoustic band was amplified just enough to balance the instruments and allow the subtle nuances to be heard by the audience. Even Smith played most of the night with brushes or special sticks to keep the volume down. "I have to play underneath him (Sandip)," he explained. The tablas themselves are generally a set of two small drums. The "dayan" is played with the right hand. It is cylindrical and carved out of a solid piece of hard wood with a single head of about 5 1/2 inches in diameter. The "bayan" is played with the left hand. It is a hemispherical bowl shaped drum usually made of copper, brass, or bronze with a single head approximately 9 inches in diameter. Burman had one bayan and four dayan in different tunings that he would switch for different songs. At times, he used all five drums to play delicate melodic passages.
The second set started with a song called "5 1/4." As Sandip explained, "That's 5+5+5+5+one extra beat to make 21." This is music that is different than we are used to hearing. Accents fall in strange places and the downbeat shifts. It's unlike the normal "groove" we hear on the radio. But in the hands of such master musicians as these, it doesn't seem so foreign to your ears.
Victor Bailey pulled his stool up front next and said, "This is what we do in Philly, not what they do in India." He was just 19 years old when he replaced the late Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report. Jaco had set the standard for the electric bass and was the young Bailey's idol. Playing only his bass, he sang an amazing "vocalese" dedicated to Pastorius. Based on Jaco's famous solo, "Continuum," he called it "Do You Know Who He was?" With a soulful voice, the song was both touching and humorous.
Next, Smith came up front with just his drum stool and hi-hat cymbals. He too paid tribute, this time to the great jazz drummer Max Roach. Playing Roach's "Mr. Hi-Hat" (which was Roach's own tribute to the masterful drumming of the late Papa Joe Jones), he demonstrated amazing dexterity and command of the drumsticks. He played both on top and underneath the cymbals, with his sticks whirling and twirling, drawing out the different tones and nuances to form a complete musical statement.
Howard and Sandip then performed "Lips and Fingertips," a duet that Levy had written for their past duo performances. All eyes were focused on Levy as he once again showed his harmonica mastery. He then sat down and played piano with his left hand while still playing harmonica. Burman joined in, fingers dancing across the drumheads. He amply showed why he is the rhythmic center for the band. The tablas are capable of a rich variety of tones based on where the finger strikes and pressure from the heel of the hand. His playing was both rhythmic and melodic.
For the encore, Burman came out alone and gave a short explanation of the Indian rhythmic system of "reduction and expansion." This is a system where a rhythmic phrase is either shortened or lengthened each time it is played. This creates a sense of tension and release within the music itself. He then proceeded to once again display his prowess as his fingers were a whirlwind, blurring across the drums, leaving the audience spellbound.
All in all, "East Meets Jazz" is a heady brew where two distinct musical cultures unite to form a sophisticated hybrid. Catch this group on tour if you can. You won't be sorry.