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Album Review: “Rags And Ragas” – Charu Suri. Words: Sammy Stein.

Composer and pianist Charu Suri has released ‘Rags and Ragas’ and she has achieved a beautiful and well-crafted merger of two cultures. A raga is a modal scale, usually performed at a specific time of day. There are hundreds of such ragas found in India and here Suri introduces us to just a few of them. Ragas, although in modal scales don’t all have 12 notes up and down, like a Western scale. They may have 4 notes in the ascending scale, and 5 notes descending or any combination. Because of their specific note and phrase patterns, there are some unmistakable phrases akin to jazz ‘licks’ in Indian music. Suri has taken these and blended them with jazz modes and created something engaging and powerful. In this music, two cultures mix, dance and create sounds that captivate the listener. India meets New Orleans – and a little bit of funk gets infused into the mix too.

Suri has the talent to deliver the tracks, but she also has the gifts of talented musicians on the album who understand the goal to merge cultural sounds and techniques. They are John Patitucci on bass, Joe Lastie on drums, Steve Gadd on drums for some tracks, Kobi Arad on piano and electric piano, Berta Moreno on saxophone, and Charlie Sabach on Oud. The drummers influence the rhythmic patterns on the album. Lastie spent decades at Preservation Hall in New Orleans and brings his profound knowledge of the rhythms of that city to the music, while Gadd adds his intuitive styling to some tracks. 

The album is a joyful, upbeat discovery of music that is rhythmic and melodic, with styles that are so different. The musicians, under the compositional vision of Suri, have found that middle ground, where music can find similarity and commonality.  

The album features impressive solos from all the musicians, with individuals creating sections where their individual style comes to the fore. Suri’s mesmeric, intuitive piano playing is intuitive and revealing.  She knows when to fill the gaps in the music and when to leave well alone for equal impact.

What is compelling about this music is its familiarity of patterns to the ear, somehow coupled with a strangeness of rhythmic developments. In a moment, the listener is in New Orleans, but New Orleans has suddenly moved to India with the rhythms of that land imposing themselves across the music.      

The tracks themselves, based on ragas played at different times of day, are interesting because of their intrinsic jazz-like, off-beats – something Suri has expanded and magnified to link the two styles. Tracks feature different artists, such as the sax of Moreno on ‘French Quarter’ (late morning raga Charikesi) and Arad on ‘Raga Rag No1 Electric Version’ but there is plenty of space given to each musician – and it is back and tempered by Suri whose playing drives the entire album; the feel and the evolution of every track coming from her composition. ‘Spring in New Orleans/Ode to Miles Davis ‘is a standout track for the ensemble. Based around a Hindustani late-night, romantic raga Bagrasi, the patterns dovetail with Miles Davis’ ‘So What’. On ‘Bourbon Street Roll (raga Hemant – a sunset raga), the pancham (fifth tone) is used only in passing but imposes the lightest touch of minor to the piece, just a modicum of reflection that makes all the difference to the essence. 

What this listener found utterly engaging were the surprises woven into the music. Just when you believe you understand the way a piece is going, Suri takes you off on a tangent, whether that is a blues insertion, a subtle link with a warping string, or an Oud phrase as a reminder of the Indian raga influence. 

This is one of few albums to fuse Indian music and jazz and it is a symphony of unity. Other musicians have recorded jazz using Indian instruments or styled Indian music to include jazz elements (jazz has a growing scene in India) but here, the music, rather than being two separate elements that meet, has merged to create something with influences of both styles. Tracks like ‘Jackson Square Waltz (based on Raga Kalyani) demonstrate this well.

The music bridges continents and cultures with ease. In this music, there is harmony, vibrancy, and also gentleness, and peace, in equal measures. It seems like Jazz and Ragas were meant to meet. Suri has worked magic here and it is no surprise – she is a multi-award-winning musician who recently won the International Singer Songwriter Association Entertainer of The Year Gold Award. 

The album is a tapestry, woven using threads of different colours, cultures, patterns, and moods but the result is something none of these elements could have created on their own. It is beautiful.

You can find out more about Charu Suri in the book ‘Fabulous Female Musicians’ where she is one of 21 top-rung musicians from across the globe, interviewed by this author.


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