The principle of Carnatic jazz is fairly long-established. By that, let’s agree on a fusion of the Carnatic – also Karnatic – art music tradition system of South India and jazz – predominantly, maybe exclusively jazz in its post World War II, multi-cultural manifestations. The commonality, the common ground is that both extemporise to varying degrees on the three organising principles of melody, rhythm and harmony. And many people deem that common principle to be enough. It is not enough. Better put, it is no longer enough because the bar was raised in the 1970s with, say, Stu Goldberg, Larry Coryell and L. Subramaniam’s Solos-Duos-Trio and most important of all, Shakti.
It is not entirely accidental that violin has played a signal role in those two highlighted cases. L. Subramaniam and, in Shakti’s case, his brother L. Shankar created new ways of expressing Carnatic sensibilities. In the subcontinent the violin is a borrowing on long-term loan but one especially dear to southern hearts through its employment in art, religious and demotic musical forms. Those brothers succeeded because they had the wit and imagination to be alert to the tradition, the day and the moment. But when balance tended towards the day, there were spectacular train crashes… Nobody – big word – remembers the Epidemics with fondness.
Jyotsna Srikanth represents one generation on. On Carnatic Jazz she distinguishes herself as alert to the tradition, the day and the moment. That is highest praise. Previously, I had marked her out as an accompanist in art music contexts. Here she is joined by flautist Ravichandra Kulur, Arun Kumar on rhythm programming, sitarist Suma Rani, Praveen D. Rao and Shadrach Solomon on keyboards. Given those credits, it is presumably Kumar who contributes the mooring (Jew’s harp), an instrument that counts as percussion in the South Indian firmament. The album opens with ‘Haunting Thoughts’, a piece harnessed to ragam ‘Sallapam’ which to the forefront at the beginning, at times wittily edgy, at times so subtle as to be hardly noticeable, runs through the piece like a pulse.
What is especially good about Carnatic Jazz is the way Srikanth fills the head with ideas. The melodic variations in, notably, the album’s eighteen-minute centrepiece ‘Folk Dreams’ (“a South Indian folk theme”) resonate especially well in food-for-thought ways. You cannot pre-conceive this music. It has to contain spontaneous composition around themes. The opening pianistic inventions (alas, the credits are pretty useless) act as a prologue before she reveals herself; by the end rhythmicality is the watchword. It feels more like a pan-South Indian folk theme than anything specific, but I have been wrong before.
It is not a complete thumbs-up. It is hard to justify this in writing, but the percussion programming sounds too tabla-esque. On this crew’s next voyage – and there must be another – stronger mridangam, ghatam or even thavil sonorities are advised. Beginning with ‘Insight’ based on ‘Chakravaka’ through to the concluding bleep rhythmicality of ‘Penta Tone’ – based in ‘Ratipatipriya’ – Jyotsna Srikanth creates a remarkable journey. Truly an advance on the chessboard.