Shankar: Pancha Nadai Pallavi (ECM 1407)

 

Shankar
Pancha Nadai Pallavi

Shankar double violin, vocals
Zakir Hussain tabla
Vikku Vinayakram ghatam
Caroline talam, sruthi
Recorded July 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar’s last album for ECM may just be his finest. Pancha Nadai Pallavi shows the violinist at his creative peak and weaves an unforgettable atmosphere. From the solemn cover photograph to the flawless production, it is a perfect package and a fitting label swan song for an association stretching full circle back to the comparable masterpiece that is 1981’s Who’s To Know.

Shankar’s playing, however you look at it, is a language of the utmost depth and beauty. His voice is smoky, arising from those strings like an echo of the inner spirit that animates his craft. This traditional raga features three cycles, the first two of which—the Ragam and the Tanam—foreground the improvisational skills of the soloist, while the concluding Pallavi emphasizes the rhythmic contributions of the percussionists in dialogue. Although Carnatic purists may be put off by Shankar’s modern touches, the music soars in ways that far outsoar its criticism.

Shankar’s sound is a constant balance of skyward uplift and subterranean excavation. From the thrums and strums of his 10-string violin’s lowest utterances to his harmonic-peaked runs, he scales full ladders of octaves in but single exhalations of his creative breath. And although the violin parts are multi-tracked, they shine like facets of the same crystal. His lines hold on to a core tone. No matter how far they waver from it, they are like rivers that both flow out from and back to their sources. In the process they provide a rhythmic drive in the absence of the percussion waiting in the wings—such that once the voices of Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram do make themselves known, it feels as if they’ve always been there, moving but never audible until now. The dynamics of this expansion alone are enough to dazzle, but with Shankar’s burrowing melodies their effects become inescapable. Moving from passages of blinding speed to lyrical laments at a mere stroke, they glow in a spectrum of colors. On that note, we must not neglect Shankar ally Caroline Morgan, whose drones and timekeeping unfold their inner depths in those brief moments of rest. Her humility rings like the voice of the firmament, stilling us in anticipation of the flights to come and baying into the beautiful call and response that leaves us spellbound at the raga’s finish.

Pancha is, along with the aforementioned Who’s To Know, by far Shankar’s best work on record. It is also an album that most cleanly showcases the capabilities of his custom instrument. One feels its lows in the rib cage, its highs in the farthest reaches of our minds. Through it Shankar sustains a purity of tone, a moral and spiritual center around which he swings the caduceus of his melodies with eyes closed and arms open. He looks into the stars and sees the strings between them not as constellations but as musical notations. And in these he paints the picture of a god-given gift that has left an indelible mark of greatness.

Shankar: M.R.C.S. (ECM 1403)

Shankar
M.R.C.S.

Shankar double violin
Zakir Hussain tabla
Vikku Vinayakram ghatam
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded 1987 and 1989 at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Martin Wieland and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Completed and mixed 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Multi-instrumentalist L. Shankar’s fascinating evolution as a musician and composer took yet another intimate turn with M.R.C.S. Dedicated to Shankar’s father, V. Lakshminarayana, it also boasts master percussionists Zakir Hussain (tabla), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam), and drummer Jon Christensen. The depths of the album’s experiences are forever aquatic, as in the opening “Adagio,” which floats Shankar’s double violin insights on a dark and winding current. Filmic and vivid, its gauche stretches a fine canvas for the pigments that follow. “All I Care” marries the rhythmic edge of “March” (an interlude from Christensen) with Shankar’s cosmic pizzicato and gossamer comet trails, the latter reaching glorious improvisational heights that can only end in fadeout, lest their perpetuity be harmed. The music travels away from us, ever tuneful, into the tabla-infused “Reasons.” Here, Hussain trail-marks a scurrying snare, backing more winged artistry from the leader. The lilting, homespun feeling of “Back Again” unravels from a deceptively simple line a heartfelt wash, as does “Al’s Hallucinations,” in which the melodiousness of Hussain’s tabla enhances the music’s playful melancholy. After the waltz-like and romantic “Sally,” Hussain and Vinayakram carry us on the back of a “White Buffalo” into the sparkle of “Ocean Waves.” For this final breath, Shankar adds a veneer of piano over his reverberant orchestrations, thereby ending this journey where it began: in and of the tide.

Shankar’s sense of melody is endearing and luminous, familiar from the first. Like a great klezmer clarinetist, he weaves a song that is at once mournful and exuberant.

Proof yet again that “fusion” is a misnomer. This is simply wonderful music that need be nothing else.

Shankar: nobody told me (ECM 1397)

Shankar
nobody told me

Shankar double violin, vocals
V. Lakshminarayana violin, double violin, vocals
Ganam Rao vocals
Zakir Hussain tabla
Vikku Vinayakram ghatam
Caroline vocals, tamboura
Recorded 1989 at The Complex, Los Angeles
Engineer: Billy Yodelman
Produced by The Epidemics (Shankar & Caroline)

After the uncharacteristic misstep that was The Epidemics, Shankar returned to his roots with nobody told me and showed us that his flair for carnatic vocals is almost as deeply fleshed as his improvisational gifts on the double violin. And while he has never quite recaptured the magic of Who’s To Know, that same generative spirit is present here in every gesture of his bow. The recording is far more intimate than anything else he has put out. For that reason alone it bears repeated listening and the nuances that repetition brings to each new experience. He is also accompanied by some staggering talents, among them V. Lakshminarayana (father of the venerable L. Subramaniam and pioneer of the Indian violin, he died the year following this session), Zakir Hussain on tabla (who, if you’re reading this, probably needs no introduction), and ghatam master Vikku Vinayakram. The session is rounded out by vocalists Ganam Rao and Caroline, the latter of whom also provides the foundational tamboura drone throughout.

The most heartening moments are to be found between Lakshminarayana and Shankar, whose exchanges in the opening Chittham Irangaayo constitute a spiritual conversation to which the listener can only nod. From tender beginnings, their stichomythia of the rustic and the laser-like opens into a broader language as the rest join in the fray. Shankar emerges from this milieu with beautifully articulated chording and pizzicato accentuations in turn before bowing his way into a rousing finish. Vocals predominate the Chodhanai Thanthu that follows. The unrestrained cadences therein bring us to the root of this music, which at its best floats straight from the body and into the heart of the divine. Only with the introduction of percussion and violin do words step out onto the histrionic stage, taking us by the hand into the brief yet inescapable Nadru Dri Dhom ­Tillana, a fitting end to a raw and impassioned document of collective music-making.

Shankar/Caroline: The Epidemics (ECM 1308)

Shankar
Caroline
The Epidemics

Shankar vocals, violin, synthesizer, drum machine
Caroline vocals, synthesizer, tamboura
Steve Vai guitar
Gilbert Kaufman synthesizer
Percy Jones bass
Recorded February 1985 at Stickwork Studios, New York
Engineer: Chris Richards
Produced by Shankar/Caroline

Full moon on Friday
watch out for the werewolf

Who’s next – who’s next
who’s next
Close the windows – pull the curtains
who knows – what may happen

When I first slid this CD into my computer, the Gracenote Media Database upped my anticipation by filling in its genre as “Traditional.” Which is exactly what this album is not. But if you’re looking for a quirky lollipop that has baffled ECM and Shankar enthusiasts for decades, by all means lick away. With endearing vocals by Caroline, not to mention the collaborative edge of having guitar legend Steve Vai and bassist Percy Jones (of Brand X fame) in the same studio, one can only imagine the possibilities of throwing Shankar’s astounding virtuosity into such a milieu.

On that note, the musicianship is healthy and the record not without its charm, which may or may not convince you by the third track, “Situations.” I just find myself yearning for Shankar’s violin, which only makes a few lilting, if fiery, appearances on tracks like “Don’t I Know You.” Vai also has his moments in the sun (check his solo in “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”). I imagine this music may have nostalgic value for some, and far be it from me to criticize what might for them be a very real attachment. All I can say is that I’m jealous they can see what I cannot. With inane lyrics like those from the last song (“Full Moon”) quoted above and a lackluster mix that all but drowns Jones’s snaking lines, it’s difficult to gauge the artists’ intentions. Tongue-in-cheek experiment? Worldly statement? Either way, I feel lost, and welcome anyone who knows better to help me find my way.

Although the album is quite beyond me, I surmise that the artists were jumping at what was then an exciting opportunity for musical crossovers. Yet not even the crossover potential is there, as Jones himself notes in a 2004 interview:

It’s very different from most other things you’ve played on. I was expecting something maybe a little Eastern sounding.

Well that’s what I was expecting. He kept saying that he was going to be doing some Indian music, and maybe doing some gigs in India, and I was really up for that, because I love Indian music and it would’ve been a good chance to learn. But it never happened, it just continued in this sort of Western pop format, and that never went anywhere.

Interesting musicians on that record, he had Steve Vai….

Steve Vai played on the record but another guy did all the gigs. It was an unusual record for ECM I thought. I haven’t heard anything else on ECM even approaching that. I was disappointed that I never got to do any Indian stuff with him.

I don’t see myself returning to this one anytime soon. It’s simply not for me. An intriguing detour on the label’s path through a sonic territory as vast as it is varied, it is the only ECM album I would never recommend. And out of a catalogue of well over 1000 releases, that’s saying a lot more about the quality of the label than about the substandard cumulations of this single outlier.

Endearing cover, though.

Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

 

Shankar
Song For Everyone

Shankar 10-string double violin, drum machine
Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Zakir Hussain tabla, congas
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Recorded September 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar and Jan Garbarek’s previous collaboration, Vision, opened many people’s ears to the more fruitful possibilities of idiomatic blends. And while that initial project yielded a fascinating album in its own right, I always felt it lacked something I couldn’t quite articulate. With Song For Everyone, that lack becomes clear once Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain level the playing field with their earthy rhythms. In their presence, electric violin and saxophone can soar even higher, knowing there will always be a ground to return to. As if to underscore this point, Shankar also employs a drum machine, as in the delightful “Paper Nut” that inaugurates us into the album’s universe. Shankar’s Philip Glassean harmonies and flexible dips form a sling that shoots us in slow motion toward the Visionary galaxy of “I Know,” where his sparkling pizzicato lines are reinvigorated by the presence of tabla. Garbarek has hardly ever sounded as clean as he does here. He digs deep into his emotional and technical reserves and proves his chameleonic abilities, such that whenever he returns with the theme in tow, it is always as if from a long journey. This enchanting track also exemplifies the coalescence of which these two musicians are so worthily capable. “Watching You” reinstates the drum machine, which is immediately valorized by Shankar’s likeminded precision (even when multi-tracking, he sounds like one instrument). Ascendant chording provides ample uplift for Garbarek’s rainbow arcs. The violin solo here proves that Shankar’s mastery comes not from the top down, but from the inside out. He makes the most demanding passages seem effortless and the simplest seem complex, as in “Conversation.” Here his virtuosity enhances Garbarek at his adaptive best. After the anthemic jubilation of the title track, “Let’s Go Home” comes across as introverted, though no less energetic. “Rest In Peace” ends the album with bowed heads. It is a slow dissipation of cloud, a gentle breeze of the heart, the empty chambers of a body in which music is the only tangible spirit.

Shankar: Vision (ECM 1261)

 

Shankar
Vision

Shankar 10-string double violin, percussion
Jan Garbarek tenor, soprano and bass saxophones, percussion
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, fluegelhorn
Recorded April 1983 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After the masterstroke of Who’s To Know, perhaps it was inevitable that the growing ECM pool would provide unusual collaborative opportunities for the 10-string stereophonic electric violin of L. Shankar. And that we certainly are given in Vision, an unearthly journey that finds him in the company of saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. The former is a no-brainer for this date, while the latter provides an ethereal depth to the already expansive sound. Shankar’s violin is heavily flanged throughout, an effect that does grow tiresome after a while. But such caveats hardly register in the melodious hearth in which they burn.

One need only follow the pizzicato footsteps of “All For You” to get acquainted with the album’s beauties and to feel the shadows of Garbarek and Mikkelborg flying overhead. With this exuberant awakening still echoing inside us, we can only close our eyes in the title track. Amid the raspy breath of the violin’s lower strings, the air itself vibrates with a cosmic growl, as if some enormous lioness were slowly coming out of her shell in Terje Rypdal’s dreams. Through the glacial slides of “Astral Projection,” Garbarek and Mikkelborg etch a flock of shooting stars in a slow-moving tide of meditation. “Psychic Elephant” follows in much the same vein as the opener, blossoming into a pizzicato line that one could listen to for hours on its own. This time around, Mikkelborg dons the ether like a cloak, while Garbarek surprises with rare turns on drums and bass saxophone. Only here does Shankar lose himself in more pronounced streams of life before the solitude of “The Message” carries us into stasis.

I wasn’t fully convinced by this album the first time I heard it, yet as I have grown with it, so too has it grown with me: proof positive of its power to transcend the disc on which it was recorded and find sanctum in the human heart.

Shankar: Who’s To Know (ECM 1195)

 

 

Shankar
Who’s To Know

Shankar 10-string double violin, tamboura
Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman mridangam
Zakir Hussain tabla
V. Lakshminarayana conductor (tala keeping)
Recorded November 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Shankar and Manfred Eicher

Tamilian violinist Lakshminarayanan Shankar offers listeners a beautiful and powerful experience in this, his first outing for ECM. Shankar plays a 10-stringed instrument of his own design, and his personal hand in its construction is as deeply evident as his playing of it. Over a steady drone of tamboura and attuned rhythmic support from Hussain and Sivaraman, Shankar’s flights of improvisation are free to soar. His melodies are driven by deep recognition of intent, visceral and immediate.

We are treated here to two long-form pieces, averaging 23 minutes each. Though distinct in form and mood, they are unified by an overarching sense of commitment and, I daresay, surrender. The first, Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi, introduces its theme with fluid precision. Shankar’s fingers seem never to rest on any single note for long, carried as they are by the as-yet-unspoken rhythms lurking just beyond the horizon. And so, when those rhythms do at last come to be articulated, the listener is salved by the comfort of a promise fulfilled. Ananda Nadamadum Tillai Sankara, on the other hand, carries itself forward with a touch of vulnerability, offering itself to the fate of its own musical environment. This is a more somber companion piece that slips into more adventurous registers and changes of key, and with a determination all its own. Eventually the violin turns in on itself, leaving our percussionists to play us out in an intimate call and response, culminating in the violin’s lilting swan song before the tamboura fades into silence.

Those familiar with Carnatic music will find much to admire in Shankar’s signature style and inexhaustible virtuosity. This is arguably his least “fusionesque” album to date, drawing its borders with reliable pigments that clearly serve its musicians well. Brimming with inspired playing, effortless execution, and a singular melodic sensibility, this is an impassioned and vivid record from start to finish and will ever remain an ECM jewel.