FILM MUSIC

“The photography was excellent, editing was excellent, the character
development was excellent, the music was incredible and absolutely perfect
for the images…All in all and from my perspective, the film was made with
such gentle hands.”

– From Stacy Peralta, director of Dogtown & Z-Boys about

Time and Tide (2006) – Julie Bayer and Josh Salzman (Aired on PBS)

 

INDO-NOLA MUSIC

Straight, No Chaser – March 2001
By Jonathan Tabak

Tabla Temptations

In March, the New Orleans jazz scene usually reflects a post-Mardi
Gras,
pre-Jazz Fest Lenten lull. Not so this year. The rich array of options,
from
major national talent like Nnenna Freelon, Mike Clark and Steve Lacy,
to
cutting-edge local collaborations, makes this possibly the best
non-Jazz Fest
month since I started writing this column back in 1997.

First, on the local front, Indian music meets jazz, and, for once,
we’re not
talking about Mardi Gras Indians, but classical Indian music from, yes,
India. Tabla drummer Andrew McLean has organized a fascinating series
of
concerts at Zeitgeist on Thursdays (at 8pm) featuring himself, Priyo
Majumdar
on sarod (a 25 string lute with a fretless metallic fingerboard and
skin on
the body much like a banjo) and a different local jazz musician each
week. On
March 1, it’s trumpeter Michael Ray, then steel pan drummer Gregory
Boyd on
March 8, bassist Jimbo Walsh on March 15, tenor saxophonist Tim Green
on
March 22 and the exhilarating pianist Henry Butler on March 29.

Last June, McLean organized a similar series at Zeitgeist which created
quite
a stir, especially the mind-blowing concert with piano wizard Henry
Butler,
who McLean called for the gig on more than a hunch. “I had read an
article
where someone asked what Henry had been listening to lately and he said
klezmer and Indian classical music,” recalls McLean. “I was living with
the
Klezmer All Stars at the time, and I was practicing tabla and learning
Indian
classical music, so it really stuck with me.”

McLean, 26, is actually a New Orleans native who ten years ago was
playing
electric guitar and singing in a prog-rock band called On in clubs like
the
old Howling Wolf in Fat City, Muddy Waters and Jimmy’s. “I was playing
a
Strat and a Marshall, you know, writing these epic tunes,” he recalls
with a
chuckle.

But then McLean went to college in California, where he eventually
enrolled
in UCLA’s budding ethnomusicology program and later became interested
in
tabla drumming and Indian music. A year after a field study stint in
the
Ecuadorian Amazon, where he studied ceremonial healing songs with a
Quichua
shaman, he got a grant to conduct a “post-modern exploration of New
Orleans,”
where he interviewed and played music with many notable New Orleans
musical
shamans, such as Michael Ray, Nicholas Sanzenbach and Harold Battiste.
To his
surprise, they all responded well to the tabla sound.

“All these musicians that I deeply respected were just eating the tabla
up,
even though I’d only been playing four or five months,” he says. “They
were
saying, ‘Keep going with that!’ So I recognized that it was something
that
the community of New Orleans would really appreciate.”

After several more years on the West Coast at the Ali Akbar College of
Music,
where he studied Indian music intensively under Ustad Ali Akbar Khan
and
Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, McLean returned to New Orleans in 1999. He
became
the most qualified tabla player in town, teaching students, playing
classical
Indian concerts and collaborating with numerous musicians in diverse
genres,
such as Theresa Anderson, Dreamland, Edward “Kidd” Jordan, George
Porter Jr.
and the Indians of the Nation.

Not long after his return, he was asked to produce a concert for The
American
Association of Indian Pharmaceutical Scientists convention, and he
somehow
persuaded the organizers that instead of a local jazz band followed by
a
classical Indian concert, it would be better to present one band with
musicians from both worlds.

His neck thusly stuck out, he assembled a quintet with sarodist
Majumdar, Tim
Green, bassist James Singleton and drummer Mark DiFlorio. “No one in
the
quintet but me really knew what was going happen or how it would work
out,”
he recalls. “I rehearsed everyone pretty much separately, and we showed
up
and played this gig that was supposed to be 50 minutes long, and the
first
tune went 50 minutes, the momentum was that onâ€| They responded so
well to the
whole group it just kind of blew our minds, not expecting it to be so
cohesive as it was.”

Of course, jazz musicians have been digging Indian music since the
’60s, when
Coltrane and Eric Dolphy (along with the Beatles) were drawing
inspiration
from Ravi Shankar, but there have been relatively few attempts to fuse
it on
an equal basis with jazz. The most influential attempt was guitarist
John
McLaughlin’s Shakti, an all acoustic group co-led by violinist L.
Shankar and
featuring tabla master Zakir Hussain and clay pot player Raghavan that
made a
big impact internationally from 1975 to 1978.

McLean is quick to dispel direct comparisons to Shakti, saying that his
jazz-Indian fusion sessions are less structured and more “intuitive and
spontaneous,” closer to a free-jazz conception. But it’s obvious that
Shakti
still functions as a common reference point for the musicians involved,
especially Tim Green.

Green says: “In my teenage years, along with listening to the music we
all
listened to on AM radio, I was interested in music from other cultures.
During that same period, a band making a great statement was Shakti. I
would
travel to New York just to hear this group a total of four times. It
was
McLaughlin with L. Shankar, with whom I played in 1994 with Peter
Gabriel at
Woodstock! This music was incredible, spiritually and technically.

“Years later, I listened to Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s
explorations
of Indian Classical music, plus I was trying to teach myself some of
the
scales (ragas) and how to integrate them into the music I’ve been
playing.

“When I met Andrew, he told me of his interest, and eventually proposed
that
I do some playing with him and Priyo. I was very apprehensive, as I
know how
deeply one must study that music and that particular discipline and all
of
its rules. I knew that I was just a dabbler, and though very
interested, I
could never devote the effort to that one discipline at the expense of
all
the others I’m studying. But eventually Andrew convinced me that it
would be
ok; that they would teach me some real basic things about form and the
progress of the music, and that my abilities as an improviser would be
welcome, and not disrespectful to their traditions.

“Andrew has been right on the money. It has been an incredibly
beautiful
experience, and as close as I can get to the feeling I had twenty-five
years
ago when I would travel on the train to Manhattan to see Shakti perform
at
the Bottom Line or some festival. Andrew’s concept is working because
he has
educated himself well within the Indian classical music tradition, but,
as an
American, has many other musical interests and knowledge, and is
willing to
and has the imagination to explore the many possible fusions. I’m lucky
to be
in the number.”

-Jonathan Tabak