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The fusion of jazz with Indian music is not a new concept. In fact, many hybrid efforts in this realm date back to at least the mid-1950s and involved many well-known jazz musicians such as John Coltrane, John McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock and Larry Coryell, and others. On this evening at Duke University's Baldwin Auditorium, Rez Abbasi's ensemble Invocation consisted of traditional Western acoustic instruments – piano, cello, double bass, drums and alto saxophone – the exception being the electric guitar played by the leader.
At times throughout this concert one could have the impression that Invocation was practicing "free jazz." However, nothing could be further from reality. Indian music is often based on a twelve-tone scale and complex time signatures (such as 7/16 rather than the jazz standards of 4/4, 3/4, etc.). This is not unheard of in Western Classical music, but it should be noted that the popular use of different time signatures in jazz goes back to the 1950s and 60s (Dave Brubeck, Don Ellis Orchestra, and others). However, in Indian music it goes back millennia!
The opening piece "Disagree to Agree" was a judicious choice in that it had a jazz-rock feel that served to introduce the soloists to the audience and the construct of the group's music. The key to this was the inclusion of the skilled drummer, Dan Weiss who also happens to be a tabla player), the use of bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, ;and the exquisite piano work of Vijay Iyer. This classic jazz rhythm section provided a solid base for the other soloists. The rhythm section was also most evident throughout the performances, particularly during the intense and articulate saxophone solos from Rudresh Mananthappa.
Abbasi was able to demonstrate well his concept of blending the influence of the Indian Carnatic genre with jazz on his composition "Thin King" (sic!). Through the wonder of modern electronics he managed to effect a plausible approximation to a sitar during his solo that certainly added credibility to his view. There were a few Avant Garde pieces; one that stood out was entitled "Propensity." It featured a magnificent piano solo from Iyer, who also happens to be a MacArthur Fellow and the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music at Harvard University and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards internationally. His biography reads like a compilation of modern jazz. His solo on this piece was extremely well organized and, remarkably, not discordant in any way; it was both melodic and technically extraordinary. Bassist Weidenmueller and cellist (Elizabeth Means) presented their only solos of the evening on a piece entitled "Turn of Events," and they were worth waiting for. Means is an accomplished classical musician by profession and provided much of the drone that is usually played on the Indian tambura string instrument. Weidenmueller's inspired solo was pizzicato, as was his role on most of the pieces, although some were bowed to provide the harmonic rhythmic foundation set by the drummer.
The final piece of the evening was probably the most inspired of the performance, and ironic in some ways; it was entitled "Dance Number" – but there was no dancing, which is often an integral part of Indian music and, on occasion, jazz. As with the opening piece, this was in the jazz-rock vein with several breaks (interludes) followed by changes of mood, including some free-jazz segments featuring plenty of alto sax sixteenth notes. Mananthappa very skillfully morphed into a slow arrhythmic segment, then into a western 4/4 time with several breaks, and then back to an Indian inspired jazz-rock format to conclude the evening. The one 90-minute set was played without an intermission, which considering the subtlety and nature of this interesting and delightfully executed music, was entirely appropriate.