The Raga Bop Trio
Raga Bop Trio
The Raga Bop Trio is a great idea, well-executed. Jazz veterans venture into relatively uncharted territory, integrating Indian concepts of rhythm and melody into their jazz, crafting a fluid fusion that holds up on multiple listenings. The quality of the actual recording is fantastic, even by contemporary standards, which are generally pretty high. You can hear everything with exceptional clarity, which is great because they’re doing some really sophisticated stuff with harmony and counterpoint.
The group is built around drummer Steve Smith. Best-known for his tenure in Journey, Smith has carved a steady niche by adapting his natural sensitivity to jazz, working with people like Stanley Clarke, Michael Brecker, Victor Wooten, and Dave Liebman. Saxophonist George Brooks, who doubles on alto and tenor, is experienced in this type of fusion, having performed with numerous Indian musicians, as well as major jazz-fusion stalwarts like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Hearing his interactions with Smith, it’s not surprising to hear it’s not their first time working together. The real star is Prasanna, who emerges from this album as a major player on the guitar landscape. His description in the press materials matches reality so well, it merits a sizable quote: “Prasanna has crafted unique approach that combines the subtlest of microtones and elaborate ornamentation essential to Carnatic music, and then spans the centuries by skillfully incorporating ultra-modern jazz melodies, greasy funk, and stadium-rock distortion.”
The album begins abruptly, dropping right into the instantly infectious melody for “Tug Of War,” which deserves a spot in the jazz canon. Any notions that the Raga Bop Trio might be just a glorified gimmick are ruthlessly dispelled as the group rips full-tilt through abrupt time changes and a melodic line that owes a lot to the classic “Mr. PC.” Prasanna’s proficiency on guitar is instantly apparent, as well as the potency of dynamic with Brooks. Smith, as usual, is right where he needs to be; his rhythms not only drive the others, but reinforce the genre-bending aspect of the performance.
Prasanna’s guitar (which at times does approximate the sitar, albeit in a lower register) stands out again with his Matt Butler-esque solo on “Ironically,” which also features a few bars of (uncredited) Indian singing atop a fiery drum vamp by Smith. Other songs on the album, while interesting, are less successful, riding a mid-tempo groove that more closely resembles smooth jazz than the focused intensity of the best Indian music. “Miss Oma,” “Love and Hunger,” “Garuda,” and even “Moonlanding” sound, to me, like basically the same song, and the four tracks are nothing to get excited about. The line between meditation and meandering is razor-thin.
“Dubai Dance” is another highlight, as is “The Geometry of Rap,” with Smith’s street-tough beats and what sounds like Indian scat-singing — it’s actually Smith’s own voice, overdubbed. As the title suggests, it implies the kind of hybridization heard frequently during the 1980s — think late Miles Davis, the Max Roach/Fab 5 Freddy stuff, or later experiments by Digable Planets and the recently-deceased Guru. “Dubai Dance” and “Katyayini” close the album in amazing form; the last notes hang in the air like pot smoke in a closed room.
Ultimately, the Raga Bop Trio is nothing revolutionary, but they have managed to put together a very interesting and mostly satisfying album. I might have liked to see a lot more experimentation at the upper tempos and more liberal usage of the counterpoint, which has always been one of the most compelling things about Indian music. But the uniqueness of their approach and the overall stellar musicianship displayed make it worth a listen. It’s good stuff, and some of it is truly spectacular. I thought it was maybe dragging a bit around the middle, but by the end I was ready to endorse this album without hesitation. When it works, it really works!
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