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While the most popular categories in the Grammy nominations have eluded desis this year (the awards will be announced on February 13, 2011), Indian American musicians have made forays in some unlikely categories—Vijay Iyer trio’s Historicity has been nominated as the Best Jazz Instrumental Album; Silk Road Ensemble’s Off The Map with Sandeep Das playing tabla, and a verse from the Bhagavad Gita orchestrated as part of Christopher Tin’s Calling All Dawns, have been both nominated for the Best Classical Crossover album award; and Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon’s Om Namo Narayana—Soul Callhas staked a claim for the Best Contemporary World music album.
HISTRIOCITY(ACT Music + Vision: www.amazon.com, $14.11 or mp3 single downloads at $0.89.
Pianist composer Iyer has been gaining acclaim steadily ever since he won the 2004 Jazz Journalists Association’s (JJA) Annual Award for Up & Coming Musician of the Year. He has repeatedly won in multiple categories of the Downbeat Magazine International Critics’ Poll, including Rising Star Jazz Artist (2006, 2007), Rising Star Composer (2006, 2007), Rising Star Pianist (2009), Small Ensemble of the Year (2010), and Album of the Year (2010). The JJA also named him 2010 Musician of the Year. No mean feat for a self-taught musician (Iyer trained formally in the violin). Or perhaps the lack of formal training is what makes Iyer’s music appealing.
Historicity comes already widely respected, having won #1 spots in ratings/polls by DownBeat Magazine International Critics, Village Voice Annual Critics, The New York Times, and NPR. The album bears evidence to the unrestrained quality of his work, in both his originals and cover versions of other artists’ work. Featuring his long-time collaborators, Marcus Gilmore (drums) and Stephan Crump (bass), the album has four originals and seven covers. The 7.5 minute title track is a flourish, with all three instruments following each other’s cue right from the start. “Helix” probes and settles like an end-of-day unwinding track would. “Trident: 2010” is quietly compelling, and the start to “Segment to Sentiment” has a bass pop feel to it. The covers are inspired as well. “Galang” is as unapologetic as M.I.A.’s original. The trio’s take on Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” while surprising in choice of genre, is not really so in sound—the string and bass sounding drums feature prominently in the original too.
OFF THE MAP(World Village): www.amazon.com, $16.81 or mp3 single downloads at $0.99
The Silk Road Ensemble originated as artistic director and cellist-maestro Yo-Yo Ma’s vision to connect “the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.” The ensemble, comprising 60 international artists from 20 countries, has put together extraordinary arrangements of rhythm, instruments, and cultural emotion, some of which can be heard on their website www.silkroadproject.org. Several groupings of artists have fed into and off of this larger ensemble: Das collaborated in a 2005 Iranian-Indian effort called Ghazal-—The Rain, which resulted in a Grammy nomination too. Off the Map, the current Grammy nomination, is a culmination of commissioned works by four non-Asian musicians to compose music for Asian instruments and musicians. The piece “Sulvasutra” is Balinese-western fusion and jazz clarinetist Evan Ziporyn’s first attempt at composing for the tabla as the percussive component. The piece has Das on the tabla, playing alongside fellow Silk Road artists Wu Man (Chinese pipa), Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Nicholas Cords (viola), and Eric Jacobsen (cello). Executed in three parts—“Ka,” “Agni,” and “Letter to Pythagoras”—Ziporyn’s music transforms the instrumental sounds into a shadow-play of rhythms. One does wish though that he led with the tabla more, or allowed the tabla sounds to dominate from the very beginning.
CALLING ALL DAWNS(Tin Works Publishing: www.amazon.com, $13.55
A significant competitor to the Silk Road Ensemble is Christopher Tin’s Calling All Dawns, featuring The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, which has garnered two Grammy nominations this year. Boasting a cross-cultural vibe as well, the album comprises 12 songs in 12 languages, including Sanskrit, Swahili, Mandarin, and Hebrew. The Sanskrit “Sukla-Krsne” (light-darkness) ties in well with the theme of the album, which deals with the cycle of day/life, night/death, and dawn/rebirth. The verse from the Gita “sukla-krsne gati hy ete jagatah sasvate mate” is heralded by a female chorus on an epic soundtrack, making Krishna’s wisdom, literally, surround you. Roopa Mahadevan and Misha Chowdhury provide authenticity to the Sanskrit sounds.
SOUL CALL(Soul Chants Music: www.amazon.com, $7.36, or mp3 single downloads at $0.99
The eight songs on Tandon’s Soul Call are composed around a single eight-syllable chant that is over six thousand years old—Om Na Mo Na Ra Ya Na Ya. Tandon composed each song to follow a different Indian raga, and maestro Tejendra Narayan Majumdar created musical arrangements using over 30 Indian classical, folk, and Western instruments including the vibraphone, acoustic guitar, and bass. Tandon’s rich voice shines through the ragas Bhoopali, Malkauns, and Bageshri, among others. However, while the devotional quotient is high, the melodic content feels over-simplified. One hopes to see the promise of this good a voice in a suitably challenging music setting next time around.
Priya Das is an avid follower of world music. She has had training in Indian classical music and continues being a student in spirit.