Natraj,
Deccan Dance
(Galloping Goat, 1999)

Eyvind Kang, Dylan van
der Schyff, Francois Houle,
Pieces of Time
(Spool, 1998)

The African influence on jazz -- indeed, many would argue, the African origins of jazz -- made a deep impression on the originators of free music, but to the European avant garde this attachment looked hokey at best and fetishistic at worst. Since the early '70s, few have looked into it much. Here are two groups who, in radically different ways, seem to have dusted it off for a second look.

Natraj take the more conventional route, offering eight heads-and-solos affairs which cook up both Indian and African methods with fairly straight contemporary jazz. The results have a rather shiny feel which might put some listeners off -- Phil Scarff on saxophone can sound very much like Andy Sheppard -- but the joys of hearing Mat Maneri play the electric violin in such an un-Maneri setting are worthy of the effort. He's evidently been influenced by Hindustani violin and santoor music, and his well-honed feel for microtones serves him well. He is a joyously anarchic presence in otherwise rather mainstream surroundings.

Those who aren't scared off by tunes and foot-tapping rhythms will like this record a lot. Scarff isn't the most involving player in the world, but he does a good job, and at his best he's more reminiscent of Wayne Shorter than of Sheppard. On occasion, as on "Na Yella Bo," he can find the thread of an argument and chase it down like a bloodhound, making pretty compelling listening. His style makes a good contrast with Maneri, whose playing is more thematic here than usual, but not that much more.

A word for the two percussionists (Bertram Lehmann is at the trap set most of the session, but shares percussion duties with Jerry Leake), too: they're accomplished enough that the co-opting of such different strategies as West African drumming, Karnatic tabla and jazz kit drumming don't sound too much like ethic tourism. If purists will complain that Leake's tabla isn't in tune on "Raga Bihag," that rather misses the point: this is an exercise in fusion, not purism, and if the purists are offended then so be it.

Natraj's brand of fusion is pretty cohesive and the results are polished and professional. What violinist Eyvind Kang's trio does is very different. Its surface is prickly and unwelcoming, dominated by pizzicato scrabbling, galloping percussion figures and the most abstract of clarinetist Francois Houle's many moods; there's no jazz at all on this session. At first glance, then, it seems to be chamber improv, just old-fashioned chamber improv, that's all, and nothing to pay too much attention to.

All of which makes it surprising to find that the group seem to submerge into these improvisations references to African and Indian melodies. Now, there are few things worse than chamber improv groups which, not having the courage of their convictions, decide to scatter in some more accessible moments to keep the crowd happy. But this isn't that; the African feel goes all the way down, down through the SME-like trio work, down through the '60s avant textures and the bedrock of make-it-new modernism.

It's hard to explain exactly how this works, but the presence of the melodic material seems seamlessly wedded to the surrounding music and to the group's overall MO. Suddenly, Kang's fiddle sounds like an mbira, Houle's clarinet like a wooden flute (in fact, this writer suspects that he's playing a flute of some sort on track two, although he's credited only on clarinet). Kang works with Bill Frisell these days, and Houle has played folk-influenced jazz many times before; this trio has a synergy which goes beyond any nonsense about "telepathic communication" -- they actually share common musical strategies.

There are probably not too many people who will find these CDs equally to their liking. Both are fine records. Natraj presents a not-too-challenging but very enjoyable take on Indo-Afro-jazz fusion, and their melodic and rhythmic drive is pretty irresistable. What Kang, Houle and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff are up to is more profound, if less immediately accessible. Spool is a label well worth checking out, and this release is an extremely impressive one.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]