Fusion That Works (Part 2)

1:56 pm Fusion, Music

In part 1 we defined fusion as the creation of new music by combining elements from different idioms. In this post we discuss some of the decisions a musician makes before a “jam” with a musician from a different idiom and how that affects the sonic result of the jam.


Decision # 1, dealing with preconceptions about the music of the other

A while back I saw a concert by two great Hindustani musicians visiting from India and a great local jazz Saxophonist. The first part of the concert was a presentation in the Hindustani musicians. Their playing was magnificent in every way. The second part was a presentation by the jazz saxophonist. His solo was captivating. The third part was a jam.

The first thing that was noticeable about the jam was that the rhythm that the tabla player chose. It was a 4/4. While this may seem like an arbitrary decision, it is not. Their first, Hindustani, set was in 18. The choice of 4/4 was intended to make the life easier for someone from outside the tradition, who might or might not be accustomed to playing such long cycles. This decision was, in my view, sound.

The jam was structured in such a way that, at any given time, one musician was in the foreground, while the other two played softly in the background, something to compliment or accompany the foreground. In the case of the tabla player, when he played in the background, he kept a strong sense of the rhythm cycle while embellishing the pattern he was playing.

When the sarodist was improvising, the saxophone player reacted to his playing by holding notes and/or repeating phrases that the sordist played, and, at times, played responses to them. In short he created a canvas underneath the painting that the sarodist was making. The saxophonist stayed within the mode as, traditionally, Hindustani music does not modulate. Although he tried to be merciful, the sarodist occasionally played phrases that were not in four or any single digit time that I could hear. In those cases the saxophone player played a long note, or a long rest.

When the saxophonist was improvising, the sarodist mostly played C major arpeggios (The whole concert was in C since Hindustani instrumental music tunes their tonic “Sa” to C).

The performance was beautiful but felt held back and did not soar to the skies that it could have soared to. With three top notch musicians who are all masters of their craft, one has to wonder what decisions were made prior to the joint performance and how did they affect the sonic result?

For one, it was clear to anyone familiar with both idioms that both the Hindustani players and the jazz player tried to keep their music accessible to the other. They were extremely generous, and neither tried to leave the other(s) behind. They were interested in making music that made sense together. That was clear in the rhythm cycle and the phrases played by the Hindustani players, and by the lyrical, modal, non-modulating lines played by the jazz player. But, in my view, preconceptions about the music of the other still limited the sonic result.

Perhaps, it would have been more interesting for the jazz player to modulate constructively. Constructively meaning to modulate while creating a clear path to the new mode that the non-jazz player could have followed. That would have taken the sarodist outside of his traditional practice but in a way that his musicianship would have kept him feeling safe and included. In other words, the Hindustani player was not trained in jazz but the jazz player could have helped him discover it and play with it using his own, traditional, sensitivities and training.

On the other hand, the choice of 4/4 as a starting rhythm pattern is wise. But perhaps the sarodist could have led the jazz player to the discovery of more advanced phrasing by making the building blocks of 2, 3 and 4 be more clear in the initial statements of the long phrase cycle. The tabla player could have helped with that as well.

In short, generosity produces music that is nice. But more can be achieved by musicians who take chances, and trust the other’s ability to venture outside of their safety zone.

Part 3 discusses more decisions and offers alternatives that produce richer fusion music.

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