Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019

by Ian Mann

March 15, 2014


A heady blend of American and Indian influences that embraces many musical styles. Harrison and Shobhakar have created a convincing and beguiling cultural hybrid.

Joel Harrison & Anupam Shobhakar’s Multiplicity

“Leave The Door Open”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4646)

Guitarist (and occasional vocalist) Joel Harrison describes himself as a “restless soul”, it’s a description that fits his music well too. Brought up in Washington DC during the 1960’s Harrison absorbed many influences and his music has variously embraced jazz, folk, country, world and modern classical influences. A detailed history of Harrison’s career here would take up too much space but a full biography can be found on his website
Readers are also referred to Shobhakar’s website

The genre hopping Harrison has recorded for a number of labels including the Munich based ACT but this latest release finds him on Whirlwind Recordings, the label founded by Wisconsin born, London based bassist Michael Janisch. It’s one of a number of his collaborations with a leading “world” musician, in this case the Indian sarod master Anupam Shobhakar. Interestingly Shobhakar grew up listening to western jazz and rock as well as the classical music of his native country and the music on his three solo albums (“Mysterious Awakening, “Wine of the Mystic” and “Way of the Warrior”) has been described as “world fusion”. The parallels between the music of Shobhokar and that of pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, Americans of Indian descent who both grew up in New York, is fascinating as Iyer and Mahanthappa are now beginning to explore their Indian roots after growing up with rock (specifically prog) and jazz. “Multiplicity” even sounds like an Iyer album title.

That aside the music on this album is very much Harrison and Shobhakar’s own, a heady blend of American and Indian influences that embraces many musical styles. Besides the co-leaders the core band, which they have dubbed Multiplicity, also includes Gary Versace on piano, organ and accordion, Hans Glawischnig on acoustic and electric bass and Dan Weiss at the drums. Interestingly Weiss is also a key component of Mahanthappa’s Gamak band featuring guitarist David Fiuczynski.
“Leave The Door Open” also includes guest appearances from David Binney (alto sax), Todd Isler (percussion) and Bonnie Chakraborty and Chandrashekar Vase (voices). The contribution from Binney, one of the world’s leading contemporary saxophonists, is particularly significant. The programme includes a selection of Harrison and Shobhakar originals, arrangements of traditional American and Bengali folk songs and an extraordinary rendition of Willie Dixon’s blues classic “Spoonful”.   

Harrison and Shobhakar first met as the result of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship for which Harrison composed a piece for jazz quintet, classical percussion and sarod. The two very different stringed instrument players spent a good deal of time examining the ways in which their cultures and playing converged. Rather than Shobhakar appearing as a “special guest” with Harrison’s band it was decided to create a fully interactive group with Shobhakar playing a key part in the creative process as a fully integrated member of the band. The group name Multiplicity was chosen to reflect the different characteristics of the musicians in the band plus the multiplicity of approaches and the different cross currents involved in the making of the music.

There are certainly plenty of those cross currents on the opening “The Translator”, a long form jazz composition which Harrison describes as “one of the thornier jazz pieces”. From a quiet opening the piece rapidly develops to embrace complex rhythmic and harmonic ideas. Versace, who has also worked with John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet takes the first solo on acoustic piano. he’s followed by the excellent Binney who scythes a way through the often dense rhythmic undergrowth. Shobhakar manages to integrate the sarod - to Western ears its sound located somewhere between a lute and a sitar -  into this challenging musical landscape, its tone contrasting well with Harrison’s soaring electric guitar. A tricky, often dazzling and ultimately invigorating start.

Harrison’s title track, although more reflective, is cut from the same cloth in that it is through composed and encompasses an impressive variety of sounds and ideas. Shobhakar takes the first solo on sarod followed by Harrison on striking slide guitar. Later the two link up well, sensitively supported by Versace on piano, Glawischnig on bass and Weiss at the drums. 

Shobhakar’s “Madhuvanti” is more obviously “Indian” in construction with the composer’s sarod often taking the lead. The piece also features Binney’s alto and the saxophonist solos effectively as the music takes a jazzier turn. Versace contributes both accordion and piano and the piece also includes an intriguing dialogue between the composer’s sarod and Weiss’ drums. Finally there’s a series of tantalising, fiendishly complex false endings.

“Multiplicity” is a tune title as well as a band name. Shobhakar’s multi hued composition begins by expertly marrying Indian and Western sounds as Vase’s voice is teamed with Versace’s church like Hammond. The keyboard player switches to piano for the second part of the tune, soloing superbly above the lively rhythms. The third segment reveals Shobhakar’s true virtuosity as he solos brilliantly above Weiss’ tabla rhythms. The drummer has studied the tabla extensively and is regarded as one of the best Western exponents of the instrument. 

If Harrison has taken a bit of a back seat on the previous two tracks then he comes into his own on a superb, slowed down instrumental version of Willie Dixon’s blues staple “Spoonful”, a song perhaps best associated with the great Howlin’ Wolf. Harrison’s National Steel guitar and Shobhakar’s sarod achieve a remarkable synchronicity of tone to turn this into a classic piece of Americana. They’re aided greatly by Versace’s atmospheric Hammond and by economic and sympathetic bass and drums.

Singer Bonnie Chakraborty features on Harrison’s arrangement of the traditional Bengali folk tune “Kemne Avul”. As on the preceding “Spoonful” the emphasis is on bringing out the beauty of the melody rather than on complexity or virtuosity. Multiplicity can do clever and they can do simple, and they can do them both very well.

The title of Harrison’s “Turning World” sums up the group’s philosophy with its now familiar blend of Indian and Americana influences. There’s a strong contribution from bassist Glawischnig who Harrison describes as a musician with “an incredible sense of time and an ability to navigate complex music and make it sound simple”. Similar words have also been said about keyboard player Versace.

“Devil Mountain Blues”, jointly composed by the co-leaders re-introduces Harrison’s National Steel guitar on another fascinating joining together of cultures. Like the earlier “Spoonful” it is one of the most evocative pieces on the record.

Finally there’s a lovely Harrison arrangement of the traditional “Deep River”, again richly atmospheric with its keening guitar and answering sarod plus Versace’s almost subliminal Hammond and suitably economic bass and drums. The second half of the piece, which almost sounds like a bonus track is a dazzling duet between Harrison and Shobhakar. 

As Harrison has pointed out “Leave The Door Open” is subtly different to many other jazz and world fusions. This is not simply a case of the “world” musician acting as a guest soloist and basically “doing what he always does” but in a jazz context, often as a kind of all star jam. Instead the co-leaders have worked together extensively to create a more integrated approach with each one buying into and learning from the others’ culture. The two opening through composed pieces have the something of the layered complexity of Pat Metheny at his best, other pieces have the simple, rustic charm of Bill Frisell’s Americana releases. The diversity of the approaches makes for an album full of variety and enlivened by some great playing. If there’s a fault it’s almost that there are too many ideas in there, a fact that even Harrison himself has acknowledged. On the whole though the music works brilliantly with Harrison and Shobhakar creating a convincing and beguiling cultural hybrid. 

blog comments powered by Disqus