‘Two Oceans’ was deep, dynamic and a smooth confluence of Carnatic music and jazz

To those of us who have seen Aussies and Indians coming together only on the cricket field, the confluence of the Australian Art Orchestra and vidwan Karaikudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya Ensemble in ‘Two Oceans’ provided a wholly different experience. No combat or belligerence, and no one-upmanship. This was not ad-hoc jamming but an extremely well thought out presentation that did not underestimate the audience. Though the two groups represented two vastly different genres, they were energised by team spirit and mutual respect. No surprise then to learn that this has been a long-term collaboration (since 1996), charming audiences across the world.

The opening piece ‘Anbe Sivam’ – mishra chapu cycle (4+3), with tisra nadai in the mix, introduced rappish flavours with Sandy Evans (reeds) chanting the Tamil verse with its resonant phrases (isaiye sivam, layame sivam), until vidwan Mani took over, interspersing words with mnemonics.

The shift to the nine beat sankirna in the romantically named ‘Drums Across the Ganga’, involved mandolin and flute duetting on audava notes, before Adam King reigned unchallenged on the drums, against the trombone’s “lahariya”. This was a spontaneous medley, climaxing in a flood of thoroughly captivating sound patterns.

Adrian Sheriff’s (trombone, keyboard) humour-spiced commentary identified the next piece ‘An Indian in Paris’, as a France-bound Karaikudi Mani’s take on An American in Paris. Here Kalyani wafted in on B.V. Balasai’s flute and U.P. Raju’s mandolin, followed by jazz take-offs.

As expected, the concert was rhythm-driven, exploring the five gatis and nadais of Indian music. But there was soul too — as when Sherrif’s trombone came into its own, diving into a rich, reverberant bass register.

An unexpected ‘Vande Mataram’ specially prepared for the Chennai show, evoked a hymnal mood, within a short span.

It had to be fun and frolic all the way in ‘Jagadanandakaraka’, a tribute to the legacy of Carnatic compositions, and of course, Tyagaraja. Naattai with its vivadi notes proved a savvy choice for swaras by jazz musicians and gamaka-garnished sahitya by the Carnatic duo. Scott Tinkler (trumpet), who had already shown his creative mettle in jazz, now proved he could be disciplined in Naattai.

The finale had the group re-visiting ‘Vasanta Pravaham’, the first composition by Guru Mani they had essayed together in 1996. This longish piece showcased the best in individual essays and in their fusion. An intense Bahudari alapana by Sandy Evans, against the tranquil drone of the electronic tambura prefaced the piece before others joined in to traverse a range of moods, pace and varying beats.

The composition allowed each to find his/her space and identity, while buttressing the values of group interaction in laya and bhava. Listeners realised just why jazz and Carnatic music have strong affinities, each stressing improvisation and dialogues between music and rhythm as they do. The mandolin strung a plaintive Ranjani with the trombone’s vibrant support. As the speeds increased, Guru Mani played many roles as he sang swaras, enunciated jatis, played the mridangam, spurring his partners to match his skills. The tani avartanam— mridangam (Karaikudi Mani), ghatam (V. Suresh), drums (King), electronic Zen drum (Sheriff) was marked by zest and a fine sense of timing.

The meeting of Two Oceans may not have been mind-blowing or gut-wrenching. But their feel-good music was offered with taste, relish and expertise. Nothing was flashy or overblown. Every musician was highly skilled, and responsive listening was part of their music making — Australians at ease with Adi tala and khanda nadai, Indians at home in jazz. Karaikudi Mani presided over the team like a black-bearded rishi, his detached demeanour at variance with his steady involvement. The respect accorded to him by team members told its own story.