It would be difficult to think of a more apt title for this brief but engaging collection of musical sketches. Vignettes features six potent miniatures of varying moods and atmospheres composed and sensitively led by sarod maestro Alam Khan. The pieces, the longest running at 5.15 minutes, refreshingly resist the temptation to fall back on some of the more prevalent fusion devices like the obligatory extended percussion solo often used to pad out such projects (nothing against mind-blowing percussionists by the way!). Instead, the sarod gently leads the listener through a series of evocative landscapes made up of a rich mix of layers and textures; pieces that sometimes prematurely fade away leaving the listener fascinated and intrigued. Despite the use of a wide range of instrumentation including strings, kit, piano and vocals, the arrangements don’t feel at all cluttered. For a project led by an Indian music instrumental maestro the album feels unorthodox with its emphasis on texture and compositional fluency rather than individual virtuosity, though some of the sarod-playing featured here is simply breathtaking.
I have to admit that my heart sank a little on first hearing; a four-chord vamp on the piano for the introductory bars of the first track ‘Becoming’ led me to fearfully assume that some hackneyed heavy-handed Western instrumentation might follow. This feeling was wholly transformed from the first emphatic stroke of the sarod, which not only opens up the listener to the sonic and textural possibilities of the instrument but provides an instructive insight into how a traditional Indian stringed instrument can work both elegantly and intelligently with a more contemporary backing. The sarod sits effortlessly on the canvas set up by the composer and its meends (slides) and resonances don’t feel compromised.
The harmonic progressions featured in the second track ‘Passages’ carry echoes of the idiosyncratic twists you might find in Radiohead’s back catalogue. Khan delves into broader musical palettes than most fusion ventures, with greater sensitivity too; the sarod sounds wholly comfortable with its musical colleagues and forms a particularly potent relationship with the cello throughout.
‘Zilla Kafi’, a favourite raga of his father Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, references more familiar classical repertoire drawing on the romantic thumri raga made distinctive through the curious accompaniment of an almost subliminal winding bass line. Though harmonic changes are prominent in tracks like ‘Open’, the adjoining melodic content doesn’t feel compromised or lacking. ‘Through the Dark’ is essentially an elaboration of a traditional vilambit gat in Raga Charukeshi played over a precise sixteen-beat rhythm cycle (teentaal) with only occasional flurries of improvisation; the cello sensitively dances around the sarod, easing us into the first beat of each rhythmic cycle. The playing gains in intensity over its brief duration, demonstrating that a raga can be genuinely and evocatively conveyed in a matter of minutes. Our last Vignette is the introspective ‘Closing’, a minimal and delicate sarod melody layered across a simple sarod arpeggio. Though at times risking suggestion of over sentimentality, it is articulated with both genuine beauty and grace.