Indian, Jazz, World
Reviewed by Toby Wren, July 1st, 2014
An increasing number of Australian jazz musicians are seeking to move beyond the association with American jazz that was their inheritance, instead establishing a more distinctive local identity through collaborations with regional neighbours in the Asia-Pacific. The Australian Art Orchestra’s pioneering collaboration with Guru Kaaraikudi Mani’s Sruthi Laya Ensemble in 1996, and Simon Barker’s work with Bae il Dong, are but two examples. Multi-instrumentalist Matt Keegan has followed suit in his new project, Haveli, which came about as a result of a 2011 Freedman Fellowship. Haveli sees him collaborate with musicians from popular, folk, and classical North Indian music traditions. The result is a refreshing blend of sounds with high production values, and a focus on the compositional and the sonic, rather than the virtuosic displays of musicianship that often characterise east-west collaborations. The album essentially exists as a vehicle for the Bengali singer and percussionist Raju Das Baul, who hails from the Bengali Baul tradition of mystical song, accompanied by saxophonist/composer Keegan, guitarist Cameron Deyell, drummer Gaurab Chatterjee, and Deoashish Mothey on dotara (a kind of Bengali lute), and Esraj.
The album begins with the sound of the khamak, a kind of Bengali talking drum, which is then joined and quickly subsumed by drumkit and electric bass. Harmonised vocals and saxophones and quasi-mystical chanting have the undesirable consequence of establishing a dominant Western aesthetic. This opening impression holds true for much of the album, which operates in a predominantly Western musical environment, what Stephen Feld called World Beat.
Things become more interesting in the central portion of the album which is lent some variety through the inclusion of two songs in unusual metres, the comparatively lively Kites, in 7/8, and Clarity, in a brooding 5/4 with an atmospheric bass clarinet ostinato by Keegan in the latter portion. An evocative soundscape of plucked strings and harmonics introduces the track Godfather before it develops into a wordless folk song that reminds us of Deyell’s other work with Australian singer songwriters. The album reaches a climax in the final song The Six Theives, which features Raju Das Baul’s most passionate vocal rendition and a fascinating call and response with
The overall feeling of Haveli is of restraint, with the musicians rarely venturing beyond the mellow confines of what remains a rather sedate Western world beat paradigm. This does not mean that it is uninteresting, but its aim is to evoke rather than to excite and I couldn’t help hoping for some more energetic improvisation and interaction from this diverse group of musicians. What the album does extremely well is establish and develop a sonic identity which is the sum total of the collaborators and the place in which the album was recorded. Given that Haveli is the first project by the ensemble, it shows great promise. The soundworld it inhabits is unique, exploring cultural intersections that have not to my knowledge been previously explored, and certainly deserves listening on this basis alone.