‘Confluence’ brought to the fore the individual skills and group efforts of TVG, DeciBells and Vein
More than once during his concert at November Fest with an array of his Indian disciples, the Swiss jazz trio Vein, and the German percussion trio DeciBells, T.V. Gopalakrishnan reminded the audience that he was 80. If he hadn’t announced it, you would never have guessed. He threw in another fact, almost nonchalantly, “I have been doing this for five decades now.” ‘This’ referred to the conversation between Carnatic music and jazz. The concert featured two halves separated by an interval — the first half gave each of the three groups of musicians their time in the sun, and the second half was the ‘Confluence’ between the two forms.
The introductory ‘Golden Shawl’, featuring all the musicians, started with Siegfried Kutterer of DeciBells playing ambient rhythmic notes on his xylophone. Bijo on the keyboards and Michael Arbenz on the piano joined him, along with the Carnatic melody section of S. Varadarajan (violin) and TVG’s son Ramanathan (saxophone) playing raga Kanakangi. The melody of the raga was couched in the language of rhythm, as the musicians executed some tricky calculations with panache.
The melodrama of Kanakangi’s vivaadi notes gave way to Thomas Lahns taking off on a thrilling double bass solo where he bent notes, almost like meends on the sitar or the sarod, to an octave and beyond. It started contemplatively, but built pace gradually when Florian’s drums kicked in. The trio, in a matter of minutes, worked up a frantic tempo. Michael Arbenz’s eccentric ideas, the way he seems to pluck notes out of nowhere, his unusually twisted chord work, all delivered with joy and precision, make him a real star. This second piece, ‘Straight Inside’ was one of the highlights of the evening.
This was followed by a Mallari, a temple composition in the nadaswaram tradition in the raga Gambheeranattai. The Mallari was a little loose at the edges. The exercise of playing it in different nadais didn’t fall perfectly into place, and there was some confusion between the melody and rhythm sections, Bijo simulating a tavil on his keyboard seeming a bit out of sync more than once.
Then came a witty conversation between Vein and DeciBells, between the flowing jazz rhythms and the spectacular array of tonal hues from the variety of classical percussion instruments on display. Listening to a fairly detailed exposition on the xylophone in Chennai was indeed special.
Just before the interval, ‘Chaturangam’ in Mohanam, a mix of raga, swara, bols and pharans, was an interesting diversion. Bijo was brilliant on the keyboard playing raag Bhoop. Varadarajan showed again why he is the among the most revered violinists on the circuit with just a two-minute Mohanam that took one’s breath away.
With the main piece of the evening, ‘Confluence’, the group finally got into conversation mode. After a lengthy raga alapana in Rasikapriya and a modal shift to Mayamalavagowla, followed by a taanam sung by TVG, the action turned to Vein again, who were back to their imaginatively manic best within the confines of the scale.
TVG, in his tani, showed why he is an acclaimed mridangist. He didn’t play intricate calculations or complicated rhythm structures. Sure, there were some deft touches, some subtle kanakkus, but the focus was on how much he could do with the tone of the mridangam. Using his two hands on the thoppi, he coaxed an entire taanam in Rasikapriya. He tilted it a little to the right to sustain the sound for just slightly longer, he tilted it the other way to mute an echo. He made it whisper, he made it laugh, he made it sing. And in the impromptu tani after the concluding tillana, he made his entire troupe dance to his tunes.
Confluence was a show that had its moments, but I came away feeling there should have been a little more conversation (of the musical kind) and a little more action.