This review was commissioned by the Street Theatre as part of the Conversations on Jazz event at the 2012 Capital Jazz Project. Participating students were briefed and their reviews were edited by a professional editor. Thanks to Mike Price from the ANU School of Music for facilitating the student involvement.
Review and photograph by Claire Leske
In recent years Sandy Evans has been immersing herself in the traditions of Southern Indian Carnatic music and applying her new knowledge in a jazz context. Here leading her trio – bassist Brett Hirst and drummer Toby Hall – and featuring her regular collaborator tabla player Bobby Singh, Evans gives the audience a brief look into a rich and old tradition, so different from and yet still so compatible with jazz. With more than 90 local and international musicians involved, the Capital Jazz Project at the Street Theatre in Canberra presented ten consecutive days of performances in two separate theatres. Evans and friends were performing in Street Two, a smaller and more personal venue holding approximately 60 people. Here, over one and a half hours, the audience (including the American multi-reedist Bennie Maupin, also in Canberra for the festival) was treated to a performance full of twisting improvisations and complex rhythms.
Carnatic music, as well as being strongly based on composition, does traditionally involve improvisation. But where jazz is as much about the harmonies under the melody as the rhythm, Carnatic music goes even further into irregular time signatures. Although the set began with a piece in 4, subsequent pieces were in 5, 6, 7, and even one with a steady pulse but deliberately without bar lines. Evans spoke of playing this piece with Indian musicians and trying to explain the concept of no strict time feel, only to hear, ‘it is very, very difficult when there’s such freedom like this!’ Difficult to play, but not to listen to. The band kept the audience mesmerized with their intense concentration. Singh’s tabla playing was particularly captivating; his fingers blurring. He creates such a variety of sounds that it’s as though two separate people are playing; two people so completely in sync with each other as to be indistinguishable. Then you remember that it is just one man.
Underlying every tune in the set was a steady drone, mostly inaudible while the band was playing. This drone comes from a shruti box, an electronic version of the tambura which, ‘gives the musicians a reference,’ Evans tells me. She says that the bass is the closest equivalent in jazz. She also mentions that shruti boxes themselves are now mostly unused in India – there’s a smartphone app that does the same thing. The basic principle remains the same however and, as the drone is in the key of D, so are all the pieces.
Most of the tunes were relatively new, some never performed previously. The concert included the premiere of a piece completed only that morning. This resulted in some more audible direction and communication than usual, eliciting delighted yet understanding chuckles from the audience. In between, Evans told the audience stories of the pieces’ creation, playing and naming, as well as the difficulties of trying to figure out if to sit like the Indians or stand to play. The greatest difficulty comes with standing up afterwards, says Evans, to which Hirst responded, ‘Yoga!’ With many of the pieces currently unnamed, the story behind each one became far more important, for example, the piece based on a rhythm sung by a good friend’s mother. These, with the obvious respect and mutual trust between band members, make the gig seem less like a performance and more like a family gathering with music.
With plans for the band to record an album soon, fans will have to wait a while longer before being able to take some of the tunes home to enjoy. But as anyone familiar with Evans’s recent work will know, this is only one of many collaborations she’s had with Indian musicians in the past few years. Two of the tunes which do have names (‘Floating on an Emerald Green Sea’, and ‘Eagle Landing at Cape Leveque’) can be found on her most recent CD, Cosmic Waves. For the rest we’ll all have to wait just that bit longer or catch them live in concert. This band demonstrates the very best aspects of cross-genre music, subtly blending styles to create something beautifully profound, and without any need to put a label on it.
Sandy Evans Trio with Bobby Singh
Sandy Evans – tenor and soprano saxophone
Bobby Singh – tabla
Brett Hirst – bass
Toby Hall – drums