Day Breaks, and Norah Jones Shines Again

I loved Norah Jones’ fabulous debut album “Come Away with Me”, with her unreal composure (for a debutant, that is) and intoxicating tone. I’ve listened to it countless number of times. Then came Feels like Home, which mostly felt like Come Away with Me. And I was already wondering if that’s pretty much the last of hers that I’d listen to. Still I checked out Not too Late. Nope. It was too late for me, and so I didn’t follow her for a decade, and more. I haven’t even heard her “country/pop” albums in those years, not even a track.

norahjonesdaybreaksLately, I started my trial of Apple Music which is finally available in India, and today, it suggested her latest album, with a positive blurb, and I thought, what the heck. Little was I expecting to be stunned!

With Day Breaks, Norah Jones seems to be finally delivering on the promise she made with her debut album. What we have here, is a strange concoction of original singles, that do remind — but not in a “repetitive” sense — of the singles from her early days, and some covers, from big names like Ellington, Horace Silver, Neil Young. Also, added to the fleet are names like Wayne Shorter, John Patitucci, as needed. The whole album has a polished, mature feel to it, as you would expect from a now veteran, and with the exception of “Tragedy”, almost everything else resonated with me.

The opening track, Burn, sets tone for a “different”, but same Jones, as she experiments with a very different rhythm, while sticking to her guns — her fabulous voice, and piano underscoring, rather than overriding. The fourth and fifth tracks (It’s a Wonderful Time for Love/And Then There Was You) are vintage Jones. And it’s here that the Album starts to break free, living up to its name. The title track that follows ventures into a more energized zone. A little heavy ensemble gives it a gravitas that’s not what one’s used to, with Jones.

Peace, a cover of Horace Silver standard (which I must confess, with shame, I hadn’t heard before, for all my Jazz explorations over last few years),  is remarkable, to say the least — with a beautiful synergy between Jones voice and piano, and Wayne Shorter’s solos. And it just gets better and better from there, with a playful “Once I Had a Laugh”, with Jones now venturing into a classic vocal Jazz era, and returning to a soulful Carry On after a track — which seems like the right ending note. This track, above all, shows Jones’ almost casual mastery, and poise that comes after one and half decade of journey.

But Jones had other ideas. And she ends it on a glorious cover of Duke’s “African Flower” that I for one am going to go back to, along with many others in the album. Again, it’s Wayne Shorter adding a lot of meat with his exquisite playing, and is given a well-deserved long runway, with Jones taking a back seat, adding some flourishes with piano.

Recommended. Especially if you were enthralled by her earlier works, the way I was.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Harmony

The other day, a friend, who has a good ear for music, in fact a connoisseur of Indian classical music, was commuting with me in my car. Normally, I am alone when I commute, and so I listen to audiobooks on my way. That’s pretty much how I’ve got any reading done at all, over the last few years. If one can call listening to audiobooks reading. There I go again.

So that day, instead of putting on the audiobook that I was reading, I decided to play some music. It could be pretty darn disorienting for someone to listen to Pamuk somewhere on the 133rd page of an extremely slow paced book. But then again, since I don’t listen to lot of music in the car, except for some bollywood numbers that my kid enjoys, or when I’m suddenly left with no audiobooks in the queue due to bad planning (which is, to be fair, not that seldom), right in the middle of commute. Now this friend of mine is little picky when it comes to music. So current Bollywood was ruled out. What I had besides that, were a few of my cherished Jazz albums. Couple of Mingus ones, and Coltrane.

lovesupremeSurely, I reasoned, no one can mind The Love Supreme? I mean, isn’t that a confluence of all that’s good about music? Like harmony, dissonance, melody, all employed to investigate spirituality.  I mean, it never occurred to me that it could just be my blind love. But later that the day, my friend commented that it was cacophony.

 

 

 

Yup. C.a.c.o.p.h.o.n.y. Something that dictionary defines as : “a harsh, discordant mixture of sounds.”

That got me thinking. Dissonance by definition is discordant, right? But harsh? And how much of discordance separates orchestrated/controlled dissonance from cacophony?

So I looked at the whole dissonance affair a bit. In a wikipedia article I found two very interesting bits:

In music, even if the opposition often is founded on the preceding, objective distinction, it more often is subjective, conventional, cultural, and style-dependent. Dissonance can then be defined as a combination of sounds that does not belong to the style under consideration; in recent music, what is considered stylistically dissonant may even correspond to what is said to be consonant in the context of acoustics (e.g. a major triad in atonal music).

[snip]

Most historical definitions of consonance and dissonance since about the 16th century have stressed their pleasant/unpleasant, or agreeable/disagreeable character. This may be justifiable in a psychophysiological context, but much less in a musical context properly speaking: dissonances often play a decisive role in making music pleasant, even in a generally consonant context – which is one of the reasons why the musical definition of consonance/dissonance cannot match the psychophysiologic definition. In addition, the oppositions pleasant/unpleasant or agreeable/disagreeable evidence a confusion between the concepts of ‘dissonance’ and of ‘noise‘.

From Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonance_and_dissonance

So while, objectively, dissonance is discordant, when one listens to musical dissonance, the perception can very from pleasant to unpleasant. From beautiful to harsh. Indeed, cacophonous.

But that’s not all that I wanted to talk about, because that’s not all that came to my mind as I kept thinking about it — about the inability of my otherwise well ear-trained friend, to perceive the beauty, the progression, the poignancy of that (in my mind) superlative piece of music.

Indian classical music doesn’t much concern itself about harmonies. Sometimes when I think about it, I find it rather strange — something as refined as Indian Classical Music never exploring (at least seriously, to my rather limited knowledge) harmony. Indian classical music is predominantly individualist! So while it is ready to shade the dependence on melody that any early musical forms have, it tends to keep the supremacy of the lead singer/player intact. There is singer or principal player, and there is accompaniment/rhythm section. In modern times, there have been many experiments to explore harmony. Shakti comes to mind. But somehow, if you compare to either Western Classical (which has almost no improvisation) or Jazz (which is highly improvised — a property it shares with Indian Classical), on the complex harmony scale it seems to be just a hesitant attempt (and they had John McLaughlin!).

That really led me to another thought lane. Growing up we’ve heard a lot in school books about “unity and diversity” and later on about syncretic culture, and various castes/creeds living “in harmony”, and so on. Are we romanticizing it? Is this harmony basically just an illusion at worst, and “live and let live” at best? Is this harmony like the polyphony in our classical music, where there is one primary citizen, and the rest are there only to “support in every which way” that primary citizen, so to speak?

No I’m not an expert on music. Anything but. Nor on culture, on Indian culture, even. And these are just threads that were started in my head as I pondered over that confusion, that judgement of cacophony. It made me wonder, are our ears not trained for harmony, much less dissonance? Are we too individualistic a culture (with exceptions like Bhakti/sufi traditions, and many more, I’m sure) to really appreciate harmony and dissonance? Is what we believe to be cultural harmony just disjoint themes playing together, oblivious to each other, or just tolerant to each other’s existence, but not playing towards a common goal, a larger polyphony?

I would like to believe it’s not so. For how would Europe, a much closed mono-culture, have developed both the appreciation and repertoire for Jazz and Western Classical Music, with harmonies at their core?  With Jazz one can understand it a bit, because Jazz did not originate there, and it was more of melting pot effect that it got adapted. But what about the stupefying harmonies of the classical masters?

And what about dissonance? Is it really anti-thesis of harmony? Or does it actually complement it. Our present day culture seems so much closed to any dissonance — not just musical. Did we reach here because decay or because it’s just a logical progression of an emphasis on one superior culture/idea/religion/race/tradition? Is our instinctive rejection of dissonance as noise/cacophony just a result of the internalized belief in fake harmony?

All these questions! And for all you know, it could just be my undeserved reverence for The Love Supreme. I sure could be little less touchy about it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Father’s Jukebox: Memories of Mohd. Rafi

My memories of my childhood are almost all tragic. Don’t get me wrong. I had a perfectly healthy, normal — a bit too normal for my taste in films and literature — childhood, when I think about it rationally. It’s just that I am programmed to recall anxious moments, mishaps, tragedies, and the likes. For the happier memories, which are plentiful, even majority, I have to consciously recall them. Except, when they involve music.

I grew up in a family where music — just plain listening, no performance, although to be fair, there was no dearth of talent in that department in the family — was a constant companion. And when I say family, I mean a full extended family from father’s side, my four uncles, three aunts, and multiple cousins … It was hard not to get initiated into music. From natya-sangeet and abhangs that my grandfather would listen to, to predominantly hindi-film music that my father was into, to English pop, rock, and classical music that I my cousin in Mumbai introduced me to, much of my music ear was trained in the family.

These days, I listen to lot of Jazz, some western and Indian classical music, but even today, when some Bollywood oldies are playing, they take me back to memories of early years at my then home. My father has always been a huge fan of Mohd. Rafi. Growing up, I listened to a lot of Rafi, curated by my father and a cousin who used to live with us in those days. My father is methodical when it comes to his music. Days would be spent to decide “order” of songs on a cassette — the moods, the tempos. Then these lists would be taken to shops where you could get them recorded on your own, predominantly SONY, cassettes. Yes piracy in the days before torrents.

Then the cassette(s) would be assigned to cassette boxes, which my father, who owned a small carpentry shop, would have hand made,  from wood, plywood, with individual compartments for each cassette, each compartment covered with a think blue/green flannel cloth (leftover from school noticeboards and the likes) such that no cassette will ever touch a hard surface, or be exposed to dust. A mono tape recorder would be similarly preserved in a flannel cloth, all the time when it was not being used, survives till date.

One such cassette, of Rafi’s sad songs, was one of my favorite “mixes” of those days. And it wasn’t even a mix, the way know mix now. Sadly, my dad’s business friend loaned it one day to make a copy and never returned it. My father lamented about it for years, too tired by then to recreate from memory that list, understandably. I forgot about it much faster, as I was moving away into different musical genres, from pop to rock to classical, not necessarily in linear manner.

Twenty years down the line, with youtube becoming an easy enough hunting ground for the lost treasures of yonder, I started with a Mohd. Rafi playlist to try and capture some of those songs, although definitely not in that order. I realize, that with changed tastes, some of the songs are too melodramatic for me (and probably for many of you as well). But nostalgia isn’t derived from “pain” for no reason. Here then are a few of the songs from my dad’s Rafi juekbox. What better day than Rafi’s birthday to post about it?

Note: I’m sure some of the songs here were not there in the cassette, and some I’ve missed.

Kabhi Khud Pe:

Definitely the starting song on side A. This surely is a tone setter.

Koi Sagar Dil Ko Bahelata Nahin:

I mean how much more melodramatic can a movie name get? This song from dil Diya Dard Liya, otherwise forgettable/typical Dilip Kumar melodrama of the era, is technically a ghazal. And Rafi had a great sense of ghazal rendition. This one is no exception:

 

Saathi na ko manzil

This lovely slow paced song is not that well known, but a real gem with some lovely lyrics:

patthar ke aashna mile/patthar ke devata mile/shiseh ka dile liye/jaaon kahaan ..

Jaane kya dhoondti rehti hai yeh aankhen

Another song made for Rafi, this slow paced song is still one of my favorite Rafi songs. The lyrics by Kaifi Azmi may seem little too maudlin today (raakh barbaad mohobbat ki bacha rakhi hai, baar baar isko jo cheda to bikhar jaayegi) however the last couplet, sung in a more defiant style than the rest, delivered more like a prose, sure packs a punch:

kaise baazar ka dastoor tumhe samjhaaon\ bik gaya jo woh kharidar nahin ho sakta …

 

Chirag dil ka jalao bahot andhera hai

Rafi and Madan Mohan was a cracking combination. This gem from the pair, though is a little not too well known gem, an ode that epitomizes romanticism …

kahan se laaoon woh rangat gayi bahaaron ki\ tumhare saath gayi roshani nazaaron ki \ mujhe bhi paas bulao \ bahot andhera hai …

 

Aapke pahelu me aake ro diye

Rafi-Madan Mohan again, this song from Mera Saya is well known, well loved. I am mesmerized by both of them. Madan Mohan has that keen sense of complimenting a singer, not overpowering him, the music never threatens to submerge the song, but uses the spaces fantastically.

 

Akele hain chale aao

Kalyanji-Anandji this time.

 

Dil jo na kah saka

One has to endure some terrible on screen personas with Rafi song. Here it’s the great Pradeep Kumar. Well, don’t look, just listen.

 

Happy Birthday Rafiji, you’ll live on …

You can check out the playlist here:

 

Music Review: My Name Is Khan

While I’ve, predictably, hated most of Karan Johar movies, I more or less enjoyed their music. But then again, it was never spectacular either. Couple of good tracks, and in general formulaic. My Name is Khan soundtrack is no different, either.  It’s a decent soundtrack, but stops just there. Just a notch above mediocre, if at all. But, this one leaves you thinking more could have been done with some numbers. A letdown, coming from SEL.

Of the tracks, two are noteworthy:

Sajda — a sufiyana song/quawaali with a little modern instrumentation thrown in — is sung by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Richa Sharma, and Shankar Mahadevan. The rhythm reminds of the upbeat streams in Mitwa, and is indeed quite an upbeat number. However, RFAK seems to be severely underused here. And the sufiyana soul of the song is smothered by the pop like treatment. The thin catwalk between soul and rhythm that Mitwaa managed  has gone wrong here — heavily in favor of rhythm, to my personal dislike.

Allah Hi Raheem — as the name suggests  — is another predominantly sufiyana number  (Curiously, while Sajda is set on the same rhythm as Mitwaa, this one is set on the same rhythm as  Kabhi Alvidaa … although that one dragged, this one doesn’t) sung beautiful by Ustad Rashid Khan — who steps down, in a way, from his serious classical genre, but does the job absolutely competently. The song starts with a LOT of promise, but then kind of suddenly ends, without delivering on that promise — especially with Ustad at disposal!

The theme track is okay too. Maybe, in the context of film, it might reach better.

Noor e Khuda is neither here nor there. Reminds me a bit of this and that song. It is pleasant, and the kind of song I won’t switch radio stations to avoid while driving, but hardly the one I will sit down and listen to. ESL seem sliding down into their comfort zones, rehashing from the past.

Tere Naina has quite banal lyrics. I guess too much has been said about tere (and mere) naina already. Okayish number — just the kind that you would expect would be a big hit because of its banal lyrics, and stereotypical music. Shafaqut tries to put in some jaan into it, but too gheesa-peeta to do much with it.

Rang De is the rock-ish track that reminds strongly of Rock On. But that’s about it. Rock On’s USP was its newness. Not greatness. And Rang De can’t claim either.

All in all, this looks like a ‘job’ done well. Par for the course. Reminds too much of too many things from the past. Lacks freshness or soul or character. A pity really, for it could have had all three.

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Slumdog: short music review

In my review of Slumdog Millionaire,  I made passing remarks about its music. Here is a little more detailed review:

  1. O Saya: Interesting. Although too much of Euro junk mixed.
  2. Riots: Give me Bombay theme any day. Forget haunting, this hardly even registers.
  3. Mausam and Escape: Just when you enjoy the sitar (is it?), the Euro-junk kicks in. Has energy though, just like O Saya. As far as theme music goes, this is pretty much up there.
  4. Paper Planes: Pure Euro Junk.
  5. Paper Planes (DFA Remix): As if pure Euro-junk wasn’t enough, mixed with more pure Euro Junk.
  6. Ringa Ringa: Choli ke peeche genre marketed to westerners by putting it on adrenaline.
  7. Liquid Dance: Best of the lot. The mixing doesn’t seem to smother it into the same pulp like some others. Although that “heyyyy” cry once too many irritates. Would have been so much interesting with a little less screwing around with it. Still one of the best in the soundtrack
  8. Latika’s theme: Serves the purpose. Pure utilitarian.
  9. Aaj Ki Raat: No comments.
  10. Millionaire: Forgettable
  11. Gangsta Blues: This has “I can do this shit too” written all over it.
  12. Dreams on fire: Soulless soul
  13. Jai Ho: Has energy. Utilitarian. Bolly-music fruit-plate served on a with some European seasoning.

Final score? Well 2.5/5. That’s being generous. Especially considering Dev D music review is pending (go check that out instead!)

There you go again!

Long long back when the whole world of English music (for the lack of better term) was alien to me, I remember this ad that used to come on Doordarshan with World This Week, on Friday nights. The song in the background caught my fancy. I didn’t know then, that that was a hugely popular song. But it made me curious about English music (no one in my school circle listened to such stuff anyways, and a few of my cousins from bigger cities did listen to it, but I had not really exploited those sources yet).

I used to talk fondly of this ad, whenever the subject of introduction to English music came up in any conversations, and not a single soul remembered this. “What? Monto Carlo Ad? Back then?”

Once again, Youtube came in handy. I just typed “monto carlo ad” in search box, and there it was. The second hit!

Monto Carlo Ad [circa 1989]

I owe a lot to this ad. It opened up a new world for me, literally! I guess I left pop behind long back, but still, that was a very important phase, or step, whatever you call it.

Ya (Gh)ali!

I like one song in Bollywood and it had to be a rip-off.

Ya Ali – Original Ya Ghali in Arabic by Guitara

Plagiarism, inspiration? Sigh!

Please don’t tell me now that even Allah-ke-bande was a rip off!

Meanwhile, Bheja Fry is also supposedly a scene-to-scene copy of Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game), a French movie. The much touted resurgent Bollywood is just this?