Recognition of Mr. Turtle

As some of you may know, I am a professional translator of Japanese fiction into English (a new translation project has, in fact, kept me from reviewing as of late…but stay tuned). My latest translation is of Yusaku Kitano’s science-fiction masterwork, Mr. Turtle, which has gained recent recognition in a write-up from The Japan Times (read here) and a Best Translated Book Award (see here). The book is available on Amazon by clicking the cover below.

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Ove Johansson review for The NYC Jazz Record

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On Christmas Eve, 2015, Swedish jazz lost an undisputed maverick in Ove Johansson. All the more fitting then that the tenor saxophonist’s swan song should span seven discs in as many hours. Although just as comfortable tying his laces on straight as he was yanking them off his shoes and throwing them in the listener’s face, over the years Johansson settled into a trademark solo style, marrying long-form improvisations with electronics. While on paper this may recall John Surman’s classic reed-and-synthesizer experiments of the 80s, in practice Johansson’s is a less cohesive art. Which is not to say it doesn’t bond in accordance with its own clandestine rules. For while the electronics—which range from drum machine beats to impressionistic waves—at first seem like a cheap application of retrospective blush, over time their dated quality reflects these danses macabre with clarity. Still, seven hours of such clarity will test your resolve, if only because Johansson’s playing is so engaging on its own that anything added to it feels secondary at best and, at worst, intrusive.

The first four discs, along with the last, consist of hour-long improvisational treks over amorphous landscapes. Each is named after a month, November and December being the synth-heaviest and most meandering of the bunch. Discs five and six, which together boast 45 tracks, are the most exciting, spotlighting Johansson as they do in live settings. The compactness of these pieces makes them visceral, so that one can almost smell the sweat of their kinesis. All of this feeds into the seventh disc, which reveals the album’s sharpest edges and rewards the journey with rawness.

Just as Johansson was a self-taught musician, so too does his music require self-taught listening. There’s no roadmap or manual: just a splattered terrain that begs the tread of an adventurous ear. Listening to this set is like breaking a hermetic seal, out of which come spilling years of pent-up energy, which in light of his death reads like messages from the other side.

(This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, of which a full PDF is available here.)

Zakir Hussain & Niladri Kumar: A Match Made on Earth

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Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Niladri Kumar (sitar)
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
October 14, 2016
8:00pm

In 1987, Zakir Hussain released one of my favorites among his “nontraditional” albums, Making Music. It was a prophetic title for the world’s leading Indian classical tabla player, whose dedication to doing just that is never clearer than when experiencing him in a live setting. Ithacans had that very fortune on 14 October 2016, when a crowd of over 1000 filled Cornel University’s Bailey Hall for his two-and-a-half-hour performance with Niladri Kumar. In characteristic humility, Zakir introduced himself as little more than Niladri’s accompanist, on a mission as he is to promote the rising sitar virtuoso to new, global audiences (for more on this, see my interview with Zakir here). The duo began with a Rageshree, a Hindustani raga following a 16-beat rhythm cycle, before moving on to lighter material for the second, along with a few modern surprises. Such pedantic descriptions, however, evoke nothing of what it felt like to be in the presence of two living masters.

When, after an exchange of tuning (and attunement), Niladri opened with a 15-minute solo, he disclosed not only his dexterity on the instrument but also his ability to speak through its resonant chamber in a language that filled the auditorium, which trembled between solidity and vanishing at the likeminded harmony of intent and surrender pulsing through its molecules. Whereas raga settings often employ a drone via the open-tuned tanpura, Niladri provided his own undercurrent, fingers as effortless as reeds wavering in a river’s current. Whenever he departed from those lower flames to craft a melody from their smoke, he bent the higher strings like time itself, wrenching melodies from their dying breaths in ways that stretched our ears to their limits of perception. The sitarist built a freestanding structure from every variation, picking up speed with the majestic passivity of a mountain peak catching cloud. Whether strumming a single note beyond the embrace of its own vibrations or gracing the sympathetic strings beneath, he was the incarnation of patience as its own reward. His rhythms were an organic heartbeat, the raga its lifetime of circulating blood.

The effect of all this was such that Zakir’s first entrance felt more like implosion than explosion, a changing of the world through synchronicity. He needed barely touch the drum, and it sang with freedom. Like two birds, wandering yet returning at key points to touch wings, he and Niladri participated in equal exchange, bartering in a currency that was beyond the expressive capacity of anyone there to hear it yet inevitable as the tide. Through melodic call and response, especially in the folk motifs to which they later turned, these artists shed the kneejerk divinity of association by way of proving the multidimensionality of earthly art. With delicate yet no-less-enthralling skill, and appropriate touches of humor to make the audience feel included, they expanded their respective toolkits as the night unfolded, each an orchestra unto himself. When, for instance, Zakir ventured beyond his tabla onto the terrain of peripheral percussion, he completed a circuit of expectation we never knew was there. And when Niladri unveiled an electric instrument of his own invention called the “zitar,” he coaxed from his gracious accompanist a global, cinematic palette.

More electric, though, was the air shared between us as their students and them as our teachers, between the past and the future. Indeed, here was a glimpse of times yet lived, pulled from minds yet to be born into every absorbent soul. For while these players may have been in and of the moment, they were as much beyond the reach of history as they were makers of it.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

In the Comfort Zone: A Conversation with Tabla Virtuoso Zakir Hussain

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(Photo credit: Jim McGuire)

As I call up Zakir Hussain on the phone for this interview, I call up also memories of my childhood. I was raised in a small town in Marin County, California, where it so happens the mother of a childhood friend studied traditional Kathak dance with Zakir’s wife, Antonia Minnecola. I distinctly remember those performances, and can’t help but laugh at myself now for being too young then to recognize the greatness to which I grew up in such close proximity. Thirty years and seemingly infinite more of musical exposure later, here I sit transcribing my conversation with the world’s leading virtuoso of the tabla. When I tell him about our distant connection, he says to me, “What a small world this has suddenly become,” and the strange twists of life that completed this circle feel all the more inevitable to me as I offer my first question.

Tyran Grillo: Thinking back on your many projects reminds me of how many so-called “crossovers” you have done. Then again, I’ve always felt that Indian classical music is already hybrid by definition. In light of this, how do you feel that you have evolved as you continue to work with musicians from traditions and cultural backgrounds other than your own?

Zakir Hussain: Indian music, at least when I was growing up in India, was undergoing a great transition. Up until India gained its independence in 1947, most musicians were under the employ of Maharajas, so they rarely performed for lay audiences. Once those princely states were demolished and India became a democracy, court musicians had to fend for themselves. Young musicians back then, Ravi Shankar and my father among them, were trying to figure out how to tailor their art for the stage. At the same time, because of the British influence, Western music was everywhere in India. My generation grew up with symphonies and string quartets, but also the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, even as we were helping to create music for a fledgling Indian film industry, now famous as Bollywood. All those Indian musicians who had studied Western classical instruments were absorbed into the film industry, and we all became integrated into a mutant, hybrid orchestra, performing music that was a hodgepodge of influences.

And so, when I first came to the United States in my late teens and heard the musicians here, it felt like a natural progression. I was also fortunate because my father used to bring me records from his travels, so by then I had heard the likes of Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Charles Lloyd, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. All of this was an extension of where I was in India, and it made for a seamless transition when starting to play with people here. Luckily, by then there was major interest among American musicians — in particular John Coltrane, Mickey Hart and John McLaughlin — to learn Indian music. I was meeting all these people who already understood what I did, and it was easy for them to walk me across the rift into a system I was familiar with. Whatever hesitancy I had in being able to contribute disappeared, because these people knew who I was and where I was coming from.

TG: How would you characterize yourself as a listener?

ZH: Listening is one thing that most drummers do. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Indian music, jazz or classical. Drummers are supposed to know all the standards, all the breaks, so that they can interact at a moment’s notice. Indian tabla players are no different. We need to know the music to be better accompanists. So we are listeners. On tour, I’m constantly listening to the masters. When I was playing with Ravi Shankar, I would listen to his most recent albums, familiarizing myself with his temperament, his musicality and his improvising depth, to see what I could contribute when I got on stage. It was a form of respect, a way of letting him know that I was aware of what he’d done and that I was ready to give whatever he wanted.

TG: On the topic of collaboration, how did you come to work with sitar player Niladri Kumar?

ZH: Niladri Kumar is one of many young masters of Indian music today who I am hoping to promote globally. My reason for this is twofold. First, people should not get caught up in idea that Indian music begins and ends with Ravi Shankar. Even at the time when he became internationally famous, there were other sitar players who were just as great and highly revered in India, but who people outside of India never heard about. Now, I may be considered the tabla player of the day, but I can honestly name at least 15 tabla players who are just as good as, if not better than, I am. But people don’t know that, because they hear a marquee name and say, “Oh, that’s the guy to go see. Forget about the rest.” Nowadays young musicians, even as they are listening to and playing Indian music, have their computers in front of them, able to access any master of any musical tradition, so they grow up with a more universal sensibility of music. It’s amazing to see them treating Indian music as more than a single entity, but rather as part of an ever-growing hard drive through which they access software of all other musical kinds and marry them in ways that at their age I was nowhere near doing. Which brings me to my second reason for wanting to play with them: to get their fresh take on what global music is all about and use my own experience to interact with them, all while learning something more in the process. And, of course, being around younger musicians stokes the fire under me and gets me going more. I used to play with Niladri’s father. And once Niladri came into his own as a musician, I decided to bring him to America, where I hope he will get the attention he deserves for his efforts.

TG: How would you characterize the mass effect of Indian classical music in the 21st century?

ZH: The only way to be able to learn about any music or musicians is through listening. And when you do that, you’re not only listening to their music but also finding out about their cultures and ways of life. I find that young people have developed a deep respect for all art forms, and by extension for those cultures. They also understand that the Third World is anything but, and that its people are anything but clueless as to where they belong. I see immense respect for what India has to offer and its ability to be a great cultural contributor to this world, and all because today’s younger generation has accepted it as such.

TG: Is there any core advice you would give to anyone who wants to start learning the tabla, or any instrument for that matter?

ZH: What I tell people is: try to experience the music a little bit, and if it actually excites you and makes you happy, then it has the potential to turn into a lifelong relationship. And it is a relationship. Every musical instrument has a spirit, and that spirit has to accept you. It’s like in the film Avatar, when the Na’vi bond their hair to a horse or bird. That animal has to accept you as a friend before you can ride it. Only then can you fly the way you imagine yourself to. That’s what music is all about. My own relationship with the tabla is such that we are both friends and lovers. We are together on this journey and every time I grow and find new shades in my musical expression, I find that the tabla is right there saying, “Okay, let’s try this.”

TG: What is your greatest hope or expectation for listeners who come to hear you play?

ZH: I feel comfortable with the audiences of the world, because they know more now than they did 30 years ago. Being able to Google musicians and see them on YouTube means that audiences are no longer arriving without a clue as to what we are all about. It’s almost like meeting friends you have never officially seen before. In that sense, I’m very open and easy with audiences. I don’t have to sit there and talk for 10 minutes about what we are going to do. I believe honestly in the music conveying its own intent. Natural flow is very important to me. I just get on stage and announce what we’re going to play as a matter of routine, and the audiences respond accordingly, and with respect.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun here.)

Rhythm Future Quartet: Travels

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The Rhythm Future Quartet—composed of virtuosos Jason Anick on violin, Olli Soikkeli and Max O’Rourke on guitars, and Greg Loughman on bass—extends beyond its Django Reinhardt roots for a sophomore, but in no way sophomoric, set of mostly original compositions.

With five tunes to his name, Anick boasts the lion’s share of thematic credit. His writing has a distinctive tenderness about it and, like his playing, shines with confidence. Whether evoking fond memories in “Still Winter” and “Amsterdam” or exploring more upbeat romanticism in “Vessela” and “The Keeper,” he moves through every luscious key change like the sun through shifting clouds. In the title track especially, co-written with O’Rourke, he rewards patience with prettiness, but always with an integrity that recalls the hybrid textures of Nigel Kennedy’s collaboration with the Kroke Band. O’Rourke’s fretwork dazzles further in his own “Round Hill,” which to my ears sings of the sea.

Soikkeli pens two tracks of complementary temperament. “For Paulus” develops unforcedly, epitomizing the band’s penchant for letting the music breathe. “Bushwick Stomp,” on the other hand, swings right out of the box, stowing us away aboard a night train to Munich. In both, the composer’s exchanges with Anick are more than worth the risk of being caught. Loughman counters with his own “Iberian Sunrise,” opening the album in utter loveliness. Cool currents of air waft through the guitars, caressing a dancing violin. The precision is immediate and strong, hitting the ear like a nostalgic fragrance would the nose.

Rounding out the set are a trio of French tunes, including the muscular “Je Suis Seul Ce Soir” by Paul Durand, and a fresh take on John Lennon’s “Come Together” for good measure. All of which makes for a colorful palette to which you’ll want to return your listening brush in enjoyment of new hues. The band coheres so organically that one cannot imagine this group or its music being performed any other way. It’s an approach that feels just as ironclad as your enjoyment of it.