A healthy prognosis for jazz
FELICITOUS The quartet's music was basically Latin jazz Photo: Murali Kumar K.
Despite the name, Rhythmic Prophecies' music is about more than just rhythm. True, percussion was very strong in the jazz this quartet from the USA, all in their twenties, presented on Sunday February 12 at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan auditorium. And the following evening at the same venue the fare must have been even more percussive, joined as they were by an equally youthful Giridhar Udupa on ghata. But the spectacular work of Reinaldo de Jesus on Latin percussion instruments (mainly congas) and Richie Barshay on drums failed to, nor was it intended to, overshadow the artistry of Zaccai Curtis on keyboard and Luques Curtis on electric bass.
Rhythmic Prophecies are on a world tour as American Music Envoys, the new designation of what were formerly known as Jazz Ambassadors and continuing a tradition going back as far as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. And judging by the reaction of a young Pakistani visitor to Bangalore who had walked in with his local hosts, their diplomacy was very successful. My new friend from his country's cultural capital, Lahore, was impressed enough by his introduction to jazz to exclaim: "Next time you must come to Pakistan."
Lest this sound like a plug for an American hand in the burgeoning India-Pakistan détente, let's get to the music. The quartet's music was basically Latin jazz, which means that when they played mainstream jazz standards such as "Bouncin' with Bud" (written by the be-bop piano virtuoso Bud Powell) they worked Latin rhythms into them. Puerto Rican by birth, De Jesus had the natural advantage of Latin instruments, on which he proved himself a virtuoso in the line of such greats as Poncho Sanchez. As emcee, he also helped the audience along by explaining and demonstrating some of the rhythms, and invited it to participate by clapping them out.
Barshay has been working in the quartet of Herbie Hancock, and he showed us why this giant among contemporary jazz pianists picked him to follow in the footsteps of the late Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette. He made extensive use of wood blocks to get the Latin percussion feel into his drumming, and in general his tonal palette was wide. While using both feet to work the pedals of the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbals on every beat, he was still quiet enough to make the bass drum unobtrusive. As he worked the pedals, he went up and down in his chair, so that this concert might have been called "Bouncin' with Richie".
To the Curtis brothers' lot fell the job of infusing all this rhythm with melody, apart from helping the rhythm along with percussive work on their instruments. Both did so admirably, not just by outlining the themes - which were often quite percussive - but also by their extensive solo improvisations. Zaccai, who likes to use an acoustic piano when the logistics of flying it halfway round the world don't forbid it, made do admirably with the digital keyboard. His extensive solos on "Bouncin' with Bud", which opened with a beautiful intro by Luques and also had a solo by Luques between the two by his brother, were a special treat.
Zaccai's own composition "Reality" also featured some exquisite melodic work by him. It was a somewhat quiet, contemplative easy-paced piece that broke the mood of the other hectic numbers on the bill. Luques's electric bass (upright like but a little smaller than the acoustic instrument, with a pick-up to amplify the sound from strings) almost sang out the same exquisite sound as the acoustic version, in contrast to the more common electric bass guitar. He performed admirably with it on themes and solo improvisations whenever called upon to do so. It was a joy to hear the two brothers provide quiet accompaniment during each other's solos. The percussion duo exchanges between De Jesus and Barshay were delightful, especially for the brilliance with which they expounded complex rhythms without being overly loud. Here was an object lesson for some drummers one has heard pounding the living daylights out of their kits.
Not that I've ever believed it, but the demise of jazz has been prophesied time and again in the last half-century. In the hands of young talents such as Rhythmic Prophecies, one doesn't need any special powers of divination to say that jazz is not mortally ill; it's alive and well.
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