An Elevated Space: The Blues flows into Peace
Photos courtesy of Sachyn Mital
Brooklyn Raga Massive pays homage to John Coltrane with their annual Birthday Tribute
Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM) has again presented their John Coltrane Birthday Tribute at Littlefield in Brooklyn. Majestic, fabulous, and beautiful, BRM is a collective of Indian Classical musicians. A raga is classification of song that dates back to 11th-century India. Today, ragas are found in both Northern and Southern India and have regional characteristics. At the heart of a raga is the mood and sentiment that elevates the room with reverence of something greater than ourselves. Many ragas are oral histories and are meant to be played at a specific time of the day or season and express specific emotions and sentiment.
I spoke to Sameer Gupta, drummer, percussionist, and musical director of the tribute and to Vin Scialla, an active drummer and percussionist in BRM, who shed light on some of the mysteries of saxophonist John Coltrane’s innovative music and the musical tradition of raga. Coltrane, originally from Hamlet, North Carolina, was as an extraordinary composer as he was an improviser. Coltrane was one of the most passionate players you will ever hear. Considered avant-garde for the time, he died at 40 years old in 1967 and his small group recordings and live performances were able to expand into frontiers that no one had yet explored.
Both Gupta and Scialla emphasized the spiritual and transcendental elements in Coltrane’s music. Both Coltrane and raga have the function of creating an “elevated space,” creating an atmosphere and mood of “something greater than ourselves” explained Gupta. He said that raga tries to tune the room so it can receive this “something greater than ourselves” and that Coltrane channeled this beauty through music as raga does.
Coltrane later in life was a searcher of the spiritual path. A Love Supreme LP includes some of Coltrane’s God-searching poetry in its liner notes. Scialla said that a very important aspect of Coltrane’s development was when Coltrane and Ravi Shankar, an internationally renowned maestro and guru, had a conversation praising one another’s musical attributes. Shanker explained that he had heard many jazz and blues musicians, including Coltrane, express their frustration and pain through their music and that Coltrane had over time transcended these dark emotions and was able to express peace. This same kind of peace is found in raga. Scialla added that Coltrane’s intention was not only to find peace for himself, but also to share the peaceful experience with his listeners through his music.
Much of blues music is seated in the perturbed soul, expressing frustration, sadness, and anger. Coltrane made peace flow from the melancholy mood of the blues. Compositions such as “Alabama,” a Coltrane composition that was performed at the tribute, shows an example of the marriage of blues with raga concepts in his music. There is a back story to “Alabama” just as is a storytelling tradition. The song is a lament for the tragic church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama during the civil rights movement. However, at the same time, it conveys peace and calm. The simplicity and sparseness of the composition is griping. Compositions like “Alabama” and “Spiritual,” which were included in the Birthday Tribute program, have melodies that contain only five notes, simple pentatonic statements that speak through the silence and say so much more. Arun Ramamurthy, one of the violinists in the tribute, told me that Coltrane would say so much with so few notes because of his phasing and effective use of negative space in his compositions. Phrasing is everything.
Simplicity has other features in the music of Coltrane and in raga. The key to Coltrane’s success, in pushing the envelope with improvisation, was that he structured his music with simplicity. More is less as the cliché goes. One of the ways he did so was to practically eliminate set chord changes during improvisation. McCoy Tyner, the renowned pianist on Coltrane’s most well-known recordings such as “A Love Supreme,” “Impressions,” and others, would actually improvise the accompanying chords as Coltrane would solo. It was like rolling dice, or using the I Ching to come up with what to play next. The element of chance was a key ingredient to the music’s spontaneity. Here is an example of how this worked: any given musical key has seven chords that belong in the key, for example a major key has three major chords, three minor chords and one diminished chord. Tyner would randomly play any of these seven chords and it would sound appealing to the ear in the background. In the foreground, Coltrane and whoever else that would be soloing over Tyner’s accompaniment would play the scale that the composition is based on. The scale was constant, the harmony shifted. Musical genres from the subcontinent had not used chord changes for centuries, and basing their composition on a simple scale harmonically supported by pedal tones. A pedal tone is a one note drone which other tones harmonize with to create a blanket of sound.
This opens the door for endless possibilities for percussive improvisation. Coltrane was known for playing many of his compositions in waltz time, which was unusual for jazz. Waltz time has become of one of Coltrane’s signatures. Gupta and Scialla discussed the correlation between the drumming on Coltrane’s classic recording which featured Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, and percussive tala tradition. Drummers Jones and Ali banged out the most amazingly creative percussion that kept you on the edge of your seat on in these recordings. “Like tala, Jones and Ali would include rhythmic cadences during critical moments of their time keeping, very much like tala (rhythmic cycle) in its suspension, tension and release time,” said Gupta. These cadences are characteristic of creating a “suspension” and then a “crash,” as Gupta explained. Scialla pointed out that within tala, there are rhythmic cadences or tihais (a group of three repetitions) that can displace the downbeat, and appear where one would normally not expect the beat to fall. In addition, a tihai can conclude a phrase by landing back on the beginning of the rhythmic cycle. Jones and Ali would include as similar effect, explained Gupta.
The program had a section devoted to the music of Coltrane’s wife, Alice Coltrane, which featured a medley that spotlighted harpist Brandee Younger. The addition to a harp added a fresh texture to the Coltrane repertoire. Alice Coltrane’s music has so many of JC’s elements in her compositions that you could say that John successfully passed the torch to her after his passing.
New York City, especially Brooklyn has been experiencing a renaissance of South Asian artists, each bringing to the table their gifts. Scialla, who plays with BMR has played with the internationally known Shehasish Mozumder, the Indian classical mandolin virtuoso and bandleader for over eight years. Mozumder is known for his original double necked mandolin and his repertoire of Indian classical music. Scialla has also collaborated with sitarist Neel Murgai of BMR in their project Mission: on Mars, and played with Brooklyn based songwriter Rashmi. As a side note, several years ago Scialla met with Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s late period drummer, and discussed Ali’s work with Coltrane. Coltrane’s music and his search for peace continue to resonate with listeners on the celebration of his 90th birthday. I can’t wait to see what BMR presents in at the next Coltrane Tribute.