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Virtuosic Conversations

Bringing together some of the finest musicians, spanning different generations, onto one stage, Seagram’s Mélange made quite the impression with its Mélange series this year.

Neha Sharma Dec 14, 2010
Larry Coryell

Sanjay Shrivastava

October saw a group of very accomplished musicians with very individualistic sensibilities hold an intelligent musical interaction live, at Mélange 2010, a part of Seagram’s 100 Pipers Pure Music Concert Series. This year, Mélange was pillared in and directed by Indian sitar player Nishat Khan. Khan is well known for his collaborative work – having played with guitar greats like John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia – and his adventurous compositional forays, working with different styles and forms of music like the flamenco and Gregorian chants. Khan put together a very interesting bunch of musicians ”“ guitarist Larry Coryell, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, keyboardist Frank Martin, violinist Lily Haydn and bassist Itai Disraeli.

While conceptualising this collaboration, Khan manifested his wish to play with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell. “The idea of bringing these kinds of musicians from different spheres of music had something to with this sound in my head where I wanted to create something very unique just in the way it sounds, but in its musical approach and with the interactions. Also, after having played with guitarists like McLaughlin and Paco, Larry was someone I was wanting to work with.” Khan has played with Gurtu on various occasions in the past and Haydn is a student of his, so in some way Martin and Disraeli introduced a subtle element of surprise and newness to the mix. Mélange took this inspiring collaboration through five cities – Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi.

The concert in Kolkata was held at the Kala Mandir, an auditorium with crisp acoustics and a rich, vintage air about it. The gig at Kolkata was a tad special as Gurtu and Khan share a deep connection and history with the city. Khan whose usual stage attire comprises of a kurta and churidar pajama was seen in a dhoti on this particular evening. “My dhoti was brought by someone very special, and I had to wear it. I had never worn a dhoti in my entire life, I enjoyed that whole experience,” he said. During the concert, Gurtu also professed his love for his home town to the audience: “You’re a listening audience, you don’t let anyone get away with crap. My mother Shobha Gurtu told me that. She is no more but I’ll keep coming back.”

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“Kolkata audiences are superb. I actually thrive in intellect. I want to be challenged by the other person, by the audience. I will jump on the stage to play Kolkata anytime,” says Khan about his experience playing in the city. The night moved through the core set of compositions the group had worked on for the show but always with room for spontaneity and fluidity. The first piece gave everybody a succinct glimpse of the magic they were to witness. Khan tossed in a beautiful phrase on the sitar which was complemented Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan-like quality on vocals as Khan launched into a raga. While some of the elements subtly crept in ”“Coryell accentuating the sitar phrases with his classic guitar lines and Martin infusing a soft psychedelic vibe on his keys ”“ others commanded their presence right away. Gurtu stormed into the piece like a juggernaut while Haydn evoked a wailing intensity on her violin working a screechy-scratchy pitch. This divine chaos was held together as Khan’s nimble fingers shredded away at the sitar. What followed was Haydn’s fantastic solo ”“ an aching soliloquy on the violin touched up by her paper-thin vocals. In no time, her gripping vocals started to scale an operatic terrain attaining pure catharsis as she concluded the aria with a nearly glass-shattering pitch on the coda.

As the compositions rolled, one was transported to a different sound space as each tune prodded on a different emotion. With Disrali’s bass intro, ”˜Cool Drift’ tread a drawling pace at first while Gurtu worked sound frills from behind his elaborate sound contraption. As the composition progressed Gurtu toiled away at his splendid workshop ”“ comprising of his drum kit, tabla, a serpent cymbal, xylophone, ghungroos and peculiarly enough a bucket of water. As ”˜Cool Drift’ gradually proceeded, the real strength of this project came to the fore ”“ the stellar dynamics shared by Gurtu and Khan as they fed off each other’s solos. The teasing volley as aggressive as it was playful built into a friendly and exciting duel for the listener.

But the highlight of the show was certainly when Gurtu’s solo moulded a shuddering soundscape: The ingenuity and innovation was simply hard to ignore. With his sound factory Gurtu simulates experiences ”“ of a jungle and a festive procession in a city – and organic sounds ”“ thunder, the gushing of a river and ghungroo-laden footfalls. Of all the stellar solos and jams, the composition that mesmerised was ”˜Strangers in the Night’ which is carved around a sublime sitar phrase. Describing it Khan says, “It’s a very dark thought in the beginning with the idea of the night and strangers. But once they meet and as the song progresses, the notes which seem strangely placed in the beginning, start to fall in place.” Through the performance, Coryell epitomised the mature and seasoned musician. We saw his genius emerge when he broke into his deconstruction of the ”˜Bolero’ which he dedicated to his son, whose birthday it was the night of the Kolkata gig.

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The night of their performance in Delhi commemorated Indira Gandhi’s 26th death anniversary. While acknowledging that, Coryell dedicated the same piece to his wife saying, “In remembrance of Indira and celebrating the power of women, I dedicate this piece to my wife, as it is her penchant for Spanish music that inspired me to work on this deconstruction of the Bolero.” Hamsadhwani Amphitheatre lent a splendid and ethereal setting for a show like this. While the set rolled in a similar fashion with a bit of editing here and there, it was the audience interaction and venue that set it apart from the Kolkata experience. Gurtu took a playful jab at the sit-down and rather sedate Delhi audience: “Jaise aap hockey match mein enthusiasm dikha te hain, waisa enthusiasm dikhaiye. We can only play if we get that inspiration from you.” At the end of the show as the Delhi audience shouted for an encore and the musicians plunged into an unforgettable jam, the fiery mix seemed to hold everything in ”“ dropping his acoustic guitar, Coryell strapped on the electric Fender Stratocaster, Martin set the backdrop for space rock on his keys, Haydn emphasised her quirks on the violin, Gurtu rolled with an ear-boggling volley of bols as Khan’s frenetic solos fired up this trail.

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