First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2008, Volume 15, #2
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon February 11, 2008, 06:30 AM CST
In the 1960s, many Western musicians discovered Indian classical music and used it as a source of inspiration. In addition to the more famous forays made by artists like George Harrison and Donovan, jazz performers such as Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane created songs that reflected the influence of the Indian raga form. What an interesting turnabout it is, then, to hear bansuri flute player Deepak Ram interpret standards from the great American songbook as well as compositions from Davisí and Coltraneís canons on his new album Steps.
Admittedly, I was a little disconcerted when I first heard the bansuriís subtle tones substituting for Davisí cornet and Coltraneís saxophone on All Blues and Giant Steps. Initially, it didnít seem like the instrument had enough profundity and punch to carry the melodies. After hearing the album repeatedly, however, the subtlety of Ramís approach began to reveal itself. Understated yet possessing a wide range of tones, Ramís performance conceded the bansuriís lack of forcefulness when it is compared with a brass instrument. Instead, he opted for nuance and depth of feeling.
Not surprisingly, Ramís transpositions for bansuri succeed best on the more Indian-influenced material such as John Coltraneís raga-inspired Naima and All Blues. The chordal structure and room for improvisation that are allowed by these songs inevitably give room for Ram to stretch into some lovely meditative soloing.
On the other hand, when a flute is featured as the lead instrument on a jazz record, it is sometimes hard for the songs to avoid sounding like New Age or "elevator" music. Ram struggles, at times, to overcome this obstacle. His interpretations of Summertime and My Funny Valentine are marred by their predictable arrangements, which never challenge, question, or comment on the traditional approach to these overworked standards. Similarly, the trio of musicians who accompany Ram on guitar, bass, and drums are obviously skilled players. Nevertheless, as if recognizing the fragility of the bansuriís sound, they have opted to do no more than provide a foundation over which he can play. This decision is understandable, but, the end result is that the bansuri never engages with the other instruments. Consequently, the genuine interplay from which some of these compositions would have benefited never occurs.
As the principal student of Hariprasad Chaurasia ó who is widely regarded as the greatest, living performer of classical Indian flute music ó Deepak Ram has become one of the most versatile bansuri players in the world today. His seven albums of classical ragas are beautiful and challenging, and they should be heard. When playing this type of music, Ram clearly is at the top of his game. Steps demonstrates that he understands the jazz idiom, and when he tackles a suitable composition, he has a lot to offer in terms of expanding the language of flute improvisation. If he records another jazz-oriented effort and, more important, if he makes more daring choices about what to play and how to engage his fellow musicians, Ram may prove himself to be a giant in the field. With this outing, however, he takes only small steps forward. Hopefully, the giant ones are still to come.
Of Further Interest...
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2 Stars: Listenable
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