by Ian Mann
December 17, 2014
Ian Mann enjoys a performance by clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh and his sextet and takes a look at his latest album "A South Asian Suite".
Arun Ghosh, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 04/12/2014
The British-Asian clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh describes himself as being “born in Calcutta, bred in Bolton and matured in Manchester”. His first two albums, “Northern Namaste” (2008) and “Primal Odyssey” (2011) combined his love of jazz with explorations of the music of his Indian heritage. His latest offering “A South Asian Suite” (2013) saw him expanding his horizons and writing music inspired by the wider sub continental area - not only India but also Bangla Desh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
Ghosh’s visit to Wolverhampton had been eagerly awaited and a near capacity audience at the Arena Theatre thoroughly enjoyed a performance that saw Ghosh fronting a sextet featuring leading musicians from both the London and Manchester jazz scenes. From London came Chris Williams (alto sax) and Liran Donin (acoustic & electric bass), two fifths of the highly popular Led Bib. Pianist John Ellis and drummer Dave Walsh represented the North of England with Nilesh Gulhane on tabla rounding out the group.
I’d seen Ghosh leading a completely different line up back in 2011 at a poorly attended event at Ludlow Assembly Rooms but his performance there, plus the music to be heard on his first two albums, ensured that I was very much looking forward to this show at the always well subscribed Arena.
More recently I’d seen him and pianist Zoe Rahman talking about the various influences on their music at “Way In To The Way Out” an event at the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. This represented a nice little taster for tonight’s event especially as he and Zoe had illustrated some of their points with performances on their respective instruments, including some delightful duets.
Tonight’s performance consisted of two very different halves. The first set was dedicated to a performance of the bulk of “A South Asian Suite” with the second set given over to popular items from Ghosh’s previous two albums. The leader suggested that this might be one of the last ever performances of the suite but the musicians exhibited no signs of being tired of the material and more than did it justice. In a display of solidarity with their leader all the musicians were dressed in Indian style robes, something that also represented a neat, low key theatrical touch - although some of them did look a little incongruous with their jeans and trainers clearly visible underneath
The suite began with “The Gypsies Of Rajasthan” , the opening horn chorale leading into a lively and infectious folk style melody with Ghosh and Williams doubling up on the theme. Underscored by an electronically generated tanpura like drone solos came from Ghosh on clarinet, Ellis on piano, and Williams digging in on alto before the ensemble coalesced once more to deliver a rousing climax.
“After The Monsoon” was slower and more reflective and opened with Ghosh’s gentle clarinet ruminations above a background of bowed bass and cymbal scrapes. Tonight was the first time I’d seen Ellis perform live, although I have heard him on record with guitarist Mike Walker and others.
I loved his lyrical piano solo here and was generally impressed with his contribution throughout the course of the evening. Ghosh’s keening clarinet solo gradually became more impassioned on a piece that again featured the tanpura like drone but which also seemed to owe something in style to the modal jazz pioneered by John Coltrane and others.
The recording features short linking instrumental passages between the main movements thereby ensuring that the album plays as a continuous piece of music. Live Ghosh punctuated the proceedings with lively chatter, informing us that “South Asian Suite” had been featured on Jamie Cullum’s show on Radio 2 and that in the afternoon prior to tonight’s performance he had conducted a workshop with young musicians from local schools, many of whom were present for the evening concert. Ghosh is an excellent, if occasionally over excitable, communicator and I would think that he is an inspirational teacher, his obvious enthusiasm for music certainly came across to the concert audience.
“River Song”, inspired by the waterways of Bangla Desh, was played at Ludlow back in 2011 and the suite itself was actually premi?red in Manchester as long ago as 2010. The lilting melody of this movement framed another fine solo from Ellis (Zoe Rahman appears on the recording) and Ghosh himself also featured prominently.
“Sufi Stomp” was inspired by the “dancing dervishes” of the Sufi religion and the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A highly rhythmic piece with exotic but highly infectious grooves and sinuously snaking melodies this high energy piece proved to be a great crowd favourite with the driving rhythms fuelling fiery solos from Williams and Ellis as Ghosh swayed as if in a trance. His subsequent exchanges with Williams maintained the energy levels and mention should also be made of the vital role played by the rhythm section of Donin, Walsh and Gulhane.
The Nepalese landscape was only one part of the inspiration for “Mountain Song”, the others being the moorlands surrounding Ghosh’s boyhood home of Bolton and family visits to the Lake District. The music captured something of the tranquillity of these open spaces through the gentle dialogue between clarinet and piano and Walsh’s subtly understated drum commentary.
The ancient rhythms of Sri Lanka and the underlying concept of “rhythm as melody, melody as rhythm” inspired “|Journey South”, the final movement of “A South Asian Suite”. The opening horn fanfare gave way to powerful grooves generated by bass, drums and tabla with Ghosh and Williams exchanging phrases and solos above increasingly forceful rhythms, the altoist really generating a head of steam and playing with the kind of sax shredding intensity that he normally reserves for Led Bib. Great stuff, and an energising finale to an excellent first half.
The second set began with the first performance of a Christmas song that I’d witnessed this year, a beautiful piano/clarinet duo performance of the carol “O Come Emmanuel”. Pianist Ellis had introduced Ghosh to the song at a festival of winter music and as we entered December it seemed a particularly appropriate choice, and one that was correspondingly well received.
Donin had played acoustic bass throughout the first half but the second set saw him plugging in his trusty electric, a statement of intent that the energy levels were to rise yet further. From “Primal Odyssey” the piece “Caliban’s Revenge” was originally written for a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. The production featured the late, great Pete Postlethwaite in the role of Prospero and it was the actor who asked Ghosh to imbue the piece with ” a Who like intensity”. Tonight this was embodied by Donin’s monstrous bass grooves and the blistering solos of Ghosh and Williams.
Also from Ghosh’s second album came “Unravel”, a convincing blend of Indian music and modal jazz with interlocking rhythms with Gulhane’s tabla patterns fulfilling an important role. The jazz elements came from the solos of Ghosh, Williams and Ellis plus the fascinating interplay between the two horns.
“Primal Odyssey” was also the source for “Lal Qi’lah” named for the Red Fort of Delhi. Musically the piece was inspired by the playing of Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006), the primary exponent of the Indian double reed instrument the shenai. Khan’s playing was also a substantial influence on the “Spiritual Jazz” movement pioneered in the 1960s by John Coltrane. I seem to recall this piece being performed at Ludlow under the title “Bismillah”, it’s a high energy composition that here featured Donin’s strummed bass guitar grooves, solid rock influenced drumming from Walsh and a series of rousing, increasingly incendiary exchanges between Ghosh and Williams.
It was back to the début album “Northern Namaste” for “Come Closer”, the gentle clarinet and alto intro leading into a slinkily seductive piece with the leader’s clarinet swirling tantalisingly above Gulhane’s hypnotic tabla undertow and with Ellis also making a brief contribution as a soloist.
Also from “Northern Namaste” came “Aurora”, that album’s opener but chosen to close the show here. After the pause for breath that was “Come Closer” this was Ghosh back at his ebullient best on a piece characterised by its elastic Indo-Jazz grooves and high energy soloing. Every member of the band was featured, Williams going first on alto followed by Ellis at the piano. Donin, a forceful presence throughout impressed with an electric bass solo delivered over a tanpura like drone before Gulhane and Walsh exchanged ideas on tablas and cymbals respectively before embarking on extensive solo features, Gulhane going first. It was left to the leader to take the final solo of the evening and to gather all the strands together as the final number of an excellent concert came to an end.
There was no encore but nobody could argue that Ghosh and his musicians hadn’t given value for money with the performance of virtually an entire album in the first set plus some energetic readings of some of the highlights of the back catalogue in the second. Ghosh’s irrepressible enthusiasm and good humour also helped to charm the audience and I’m sure many people stayed behind afterwards to purchase albums and chat with the musicians. All of Ghosh’s recorded output makes for recommended listening.
I did manage to speak to Arun before the gig but had to dash away afterwards as there was a sold out event in the nearby Civic Hall. I used to attend rock gigs at the Civic on a fairly regular basis about twenty years ago and can still recall the chaos that occurred when several hundred vehicles tried to exit the concrete bunker that is the Civic Centre car park simultaneously. Fortunately I managed to beat the hordes and managed to get away easily.
Tonight’s performance ended 2014 at the Arena Theatre on a high note. 2015 also promises more exceptional performances with a schedule as follows;
Sat 31st January - The Impossible Gentlemen
Sat 28th February - Trish Clowes Tangent Quintet feat. Gwilym Simcock
Fri 17th April - Tim Garland Quartet
Sat 25th April- Quercus (June Tabor, Iain Ballamy, Huw Warren)
Sat 9th May - The Printmakers feat. Nikki Iles and Norma Winstone
More information at http://www.arena.wlv.ac.uk
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