Monday, July 2, 2018

"The Alchemy" A Serene New Offering from George Brooks and Elements

George Brooks and Elements The Alchemy

The saxophonist George Brooks is a West Coast based musician with a definitive sound that is strongly influenced by his affinity for Eastern and particularly Northern Indian classical music.

Brooks was originally from New York and studied saxophone with Count Basie alumnus Frank Foster. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music in the mid-seventies and studied with Jaki Byard, George Russell and Joe Allard. It was at NEC that he met Peter Row, a sitarist and ethnomusicologist at the school. Row introduced Brooks to some classical Indian music, especially the work of influential Northern Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. Brooks went to India to study with Nath, eventually indenturing himself to the master, cooking and caring for him in exchange for being permitted to absorb his knowledge. He also met sitarists Krishna Bhatt and composer Terry Riley, a relationship that would carry on when Brooks returned to the United States and settled in California.
Gharana, a term derived from an Indian word meaning house, is the specific School of Indian music that Brooks focused his studies on. It emphasized the expression of a raga took precedence over the more rhythmic aspects of the music. The eighth century text, The Brihaddeshi describes raga as " a combination of tones which, with beautiful illuminating graces, pleases the people in general." 

Brooks association with Terry Riley, the influential minimalist pianist/composer and early advocate of the use of tape delay technology would last for thirty years. During his early years in California, Brooks found himself participating in the vivid and expansive Bay area music scene. Besides his work with Riley, he was tapped to lead the horn sections of blues greats Albert Collins, Johnny Taylor and Etta James. His continuing study of Indian Classical music of both the Northern Hindustani and Southern Carnatic styles and its fusion with Western traditions of jazz improvisation brought him into collaborations with tabla master Zakir Hussain, the drummer Steve Smith from Journey, the fusion guitarists Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, the bassist Kai Eckhardt and the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. His Indian collaborators are too numerous to mention but are some of the most celebrated musicians in the Indian tradition.

Brooks latest project, a trio titled Elements, combines Brooks’ artful soprano and tenor saxophone work with the Hindustani virtuoso Kala Ramnath’s haunting violin and Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentik in an eastern influenced chamber music setting. The album aptly titled The Alchemy is just that, a transformational fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions. An album of deep beauty and quietude, if you allow it the music fosters a spiritual connection to your inner self.

Elements: George Brooks, Kala Ramnath, Gwyneth Wentik
The opener cut “To the Light” starts with a quick-paced synchronous line that is played in unison by the two string instruments, one plucked the other bowed, and Brooks floating soprano. Wentik’s harp provides the plucked background as Ramnath’s bow work pierces the air and Brooks’ soprano soars above the clouds. Brooks soprano work is some of the finest in almost any genre- light, fluid and precise and it is surprising that he doesn’t receive greater recognition for his work in annual polls.

Wentik’s harp gives the music a celestial feel on the beautiful “Karuna.” Ramanth’s violin work is some of the most poignant I’ve heard.  There is a Elysian quality to it that is  quite moving. She manages to produce sounds that ache with sorrow or soar with joy. Brooks’ plays tenor on this and his sound is no less compelling on this instrument.   

The music is peaceful, meditative, serene. Any inner tension I might have been holding onto melted away as I listened to “Travelling Music for Ann” with the ostinato harp of Wentik setting the stage, Brooks’ breezy soprano soaring and swooping and Ramanth’s plaintive, undulating voice all adding to a sense of inner calm.

“Singara” starts out with a call and response between Brooks’ soprano and Ramnath’s aching violin before Wentik’s harp sets the rhythmic stage. On “Lemon Pickle” the kanjira is played by Selvaganesh Vinayakram. This rhythmic instrument from the Southern Indian Carnatic tradition is a tambourine-like drum that creates a plunging like sound. The group plays fast paced lines in unison as the kanjira sets a tonal pace.

 “Ambika” is another showcase for Ramnath’s expressive violin work. You can almost visualize her instrument weeping at times. Wentik’s harp work is gentle like a summer breeze and Brook’s soprano is weightless.

 “To Be or Not,” one of the more melodic songs on the album, is the final song presented by the trio. This time they include Kai Eckhardt’s bass to the mix to set the song on a firm footing. You seem to forget that for the most of this album there is no percussive instrument present.

The remainder of the album is a three-song suite that features the solo harp work of Wentik, a formidable musician on an instrument that is not often featured as a solo instrument. She concludes the program  with songs like “The Gift” The Longing” and “The Promise."

Let’s be clear as with much of the new music that I receive this music is not jazz per se but more like jazz and world-influenced chamber music. It is expertly played and if you would occasionally welcome a peaceful respite from your everyday hustle, or even if you want a gorgeous, serene soundtrack to meditate  or do Yoga to than The Alchemy will fit that bill nicely.

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