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Arun Ghosh

Arun Ghosh Quartet, Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, Shropshire, 04/11/2011.

by Ian Mann

November 08, 2011


Ian Mann enjoys a dynamic live performance of Indo-Jazz from clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh and takes a look at his albums "Northern Namaste" and "Primal Odyssey"

Arun Ghosh, Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, Shropshire, 04/11/2011.

Clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh is currently touring the UK in support of his new album “Primal Odyssey”, recently released on the Camoci label. The album features a unique three horn front line comprised of Ghosh (clarinet), Idris Rahman (tenor saxophone) and Shabaka Hutchings (bass clarinet) plus a rhythm section of Led Bib bassist Liran Donin and drummer Patrick Illingworth, like Rahman also a member of the jazz/roots group Soothsayers.

Tonight’s performance at Ludlow featured three fifths of the album line up with Ghosh, Rahman and Illingworth being joined in a quartet format by Manchester based Gavin Barrass (double bass), a supremely adaptable musician best known for his work with the Mancunian bands led by trumpeter Matthew Halsall and saxophonist Nat Birchall. The enforced changes led to Ghosh adapting his set list to include a number of tunes from his acclaimed début album “Northern Namaste” (Camoci, 2008), an album featuring a greater number of arrangements for just clarinet and tenor plus more tunes that Barrass was already familiar with. To an audience that in the main probably hadn’t heard Ghosh before this was of little consequence and the small but enthusiastic audience in the Assembly Rooms’ “Oscar’s” performance space responded positively to Ghosh’s distinctive blend of “Indian Jazz”.

As Ghosh puts it he “was born in Calcutta, bred in Bolton and matured in Manchester” and his music is a unique mix of sources drawn from Indian music and jazz, the latter often of the modal variety pioneered by John Coltrane. Illingworth’s drumming also brings a contemporary rock sensibility to the group. Ghosh is loath to call his music “fusion”, preferring to think of it as simply being a natural coming together of all his influences. “Northern Namaste” was more obviously “Indian”, mainly through its occasional use of tabla, sitar and other Indian instruments, but “Primal Odyssey” eschews these with Ghosh preferring to express his heritage through a combination of purely “Western” instruments. And make no mistake that heritage is always there, sometimes expressed subtly at other times less so, but there’s an edginess and urgency about Ghosh’s music that prevents it from slipping into the kind of precious, cute or over intellectual jazz/folk “fusions” one might hear elsewhere. Almost certainly some of this stems from Ghosh’s northern upbringing, this is music from the streets, often delivered with a very northern blend of bluntness and swagger. Ghosh’s shows are high on energy, he’s a charismatic performer constantly moving his body in time to the music and I’m sure that at some gigs he has the audience up on their feet swaying along with him. Rural Shropshire wasn’t perhaps quite the place for that, despite the organisers attempt at a club/cabaret style vibe, but that doesn’t mean to say that the music wasn’t appreciated. 

The quartet commenced with “Aurora”, the opening track from “Northern Namaste”. Even without the album’s tabla undertow the Indian inflections of the music were immediately apparent in Ghosh’s opening clarinet solo. The leader was followed by Rahman’s slow burning tenor solo, the whole underpinned by the modal pulse of Barrass’ double bass. 

Idris Rahman is a fine clarinettist in his own right, often playing the instrument as a member of his pianist sister Zoe’s quartet. The as yet unrecorded “River Song”, inspired by Bengali folk music, featured the sound of the twin clarinets of Ghosh and Rahman intertwining like snakes above Illingworth’s neat brush work.

From “Primal Odyssey” “Unravel” was another example of the influence of modal jazz on Ghosh’s work, the modal framework acting as a springboard for solos of considerable attack and intensity from Rahman and Ghosh. There’s nothing fey or even vaguely classical about Ghosh’s approach to the clarinet (despite the fact that he’s been classically trained ) and there’s no trad jazz corniness either. Ghosh taps into the clarinet’s role as a folk instrument, playing with passion and skill and delivering plenty of flattened or “blue notes” to link it in to the jazz tradition.

From “Northern Namaste” the piece “Come Closer” featured a brief clarinet/tenor sax duo opening before Barrass established a deep bass groove which Illingworth embellished with almost hip hop rhythms in a genuine bass and drum dialogue. Meanwhile the sinuous horns of Ghosh and Rahman were interweaving in a further gripping musical conversation of their own. 

Ghosh has written extensively for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and several of the pieces on “Primal Odyssey” were originally written for this purpose. “Caliban’s Revenge” was initially written for the late Pete Postlethwaite, a sometime Shropshire resident, to complement his role as Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. Potlethwaite requested a “Who like aggression” and something of that remains in the driving ektar rhythms of the current edition of the piece. Appropriately it was Illingworth’s drums that lead it in (a nod perhaps to the late, great Keith Moon) with barnstorming solos subsequently coming from Rahman and Ghosh, the clarinettist supplementing his solo with a series of appropriately theatrical hand gestures. Illingworth maintained his level of attack throughout the piece and the tune ended with a dynamic drum feature.

I was expecting the first half to end here but the quartet signed off with the slow-burning “Uterine” from ” Northern Namaste”, Ghosh’s dedication to his third child, he scarcely looks old enough to have one! Slowly building in intensity this featured a very different drumming performance from Illingworth with the emphasis here on percussive detail rather than power as he and Barrass accompanied the characteristically fluent solos of Rahman and Ghosh.

This had been an excellent first half with Ghosh’s distinctive but eminently accessible blend of “Indo-Jazz” quickly winning the approval of the Ludlow crowd. Ghosh is a great communicator and proved to be highly adept at verbally explaining his musical ideas to his audience. The quality and spirit of the playing then spoke for itself.

The second half began with the hard driving grooves of “Damascus” from the new album with Rahman and Ghosh again soloing powerfully. But it’s the interplay between the horns that’s the essence of Ghosh’s music, particularly on “Primal Odyssey” where the additional voice of Hutchings is added to the mix.

From “Northern Namaste”  “Bondhu” (English translation “Friend”) was another piece based on Bengali folk music and was described by Ghosh as “my ideal homeland tune”. This was a delightful miniature featuring the swirling twin clarinets of Ghosh and Rahman. “Longsight Lagoon”, from the same album, received a less glowing verbal introduction. Inspired by a location in Manchester this was a less flattering musical illustration with Rahman effecting a harsh, gritty, earthy tenor sax sound throughout. A little light relief came during Ghosh’s clarinet solo when I thought I detected a veiled quote from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue”. Or is that “Sky Blue” these days?

The unrecorded “Bismillah” was a tribute to the late Indian musician Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006), the leading exponent of the double reed instrument the shenai. Khan’s playing was a considerable influence on John Coltrane’s modal and “spiritual” jazz of the 1960’s and he provides a neat link between Ghosh’s jazz and Indian influences. A gentle sax and clarinet intro was merely the calm before a storm of rasping tenor sax, soaring clarinet and, perhaps most surprisingly, Illingworth’s powerful rock rhythms.

More surprises came with the closing number, Ghosh’s arrangement of The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” which he described as “bringing it back home”. With Illingworth slamming out the familiar Ringo rhythm Ghosh picked out the melody as Rahman approximated the seagull noises of the original in his tenor’s upper register before subsequently embarking on his solo. Illingworth was featured at the drums before Ghosh’s climactic final solo seemed to signal the end of the gig.

However this being Ludlow the audience didn’t stamp or holler-but they did make it quite clear that they weren’t going anywhere until they’d heard some more. ” A very Shropshire encore”, as Ghosh put it, began with Barrass picking out the mighty bass riff that powers Primal Odyssey’s “Headrush” as Rahman and Ghosh locked horns for not quite the final time. Did I detect just a smidgen of King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” in all that sax and clarinet waling?

Following this final assault Ghosh and Rahman, both now on clarinet, stepped out front and off mic for a calming “Nocturne (Chandra Dhun)”, the final track on “Primal Odyssey”. Accompanied only by Barrass’ double bass this was a lovely way to end two excellent sets of music from this highly competent quartet.

I’ll confess that I was a little disappointed that Hutchings wasn’t there, I’ve long been an admirer of his work with Courtney Pine, Polar Bear, his own groups Zed-U and Sons of Kemet and more recently in a free improv context. No wonder he was busy elsewhere! I also enjoy Liran Donin’s playing with his regular band Led Bib also and I’d surmise that he was playing elsewhere with them but I though Gavin Barrass did a terrific job in his absence. 

“Namaste” means “welcome” and Ghosh was certainly very welcoming both to your reviewer and to the numerous other fans who took time to speak to him afterwards. The tour continues and Arun Ghosh is also scheduled to be the “Artist On The Move” at the 2011 London Jazz Festival where he will be making a number of appearances in different contexts and locations, many of them free of charge. See and for more details. 

Both albums are highly recommended, packed with memorable tunes and some great playing. If one has a criticism of Ghosh it’s perhaps that there’s a lack of light and shade in his music, particularly on “Primal Odyssey” which is pretty intense and “full on” almost throughout. Having said that he’s a dynamic live performer and I’d urge anyone reading this to check him out. He’s capable of even better performances than this.     


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