The Well-Tempered Raga: Pianist Richard Bennett fuses Indian Classical and Jazz on "New York Swara"

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One day in India, New York-based composer and jazz pianist Richard Bennett discovered he was playing ragas. He was improvising with his friend, light Hindustani classical singer Dhanashree Pandit-Rai at her apartment by the Arabian Sea, when the singer’s mother walked in. She liked what she heard.

“She kept naming the ragas I was playing,” recalls Bennett, referring to the complex modes and associated ornaments that form the melodic basis for Indian classical music. “Even when I wasn’t consciously playing them, she identified them. I picked up the ragas by listening, by osmosis.”

The serendipitous discovery opened the door for Bennett to a very personal way of joining two traditions on his unlikely instrument, an approach that shines with musical clarity in the original pieces on New York City Swara (Times Music). The product of years of recording and performing, the album brings together some of New York’s strongest Indian classical and jazz players, supporting Bennett’s well-honed playing on piano and melodica.

Focusing on each note or swara, its sound and significance, Bennett has found an intuitive, engaging means of expressing the essence of each raga, with a sound that feels equally at home in Brooklyn or Mumbai. Sometimes stripped down to the sonic core, sometimes rippling with arpeggios, Bennett’s pieces move gracefully between dreamy textures and catchy ballads, between bubbling electronics and South Indian violin, between minimalist contemplation and driving groove.

“I don’t really consider it purely Indian music because the pianistic part is central,” Bennett reflects. “It’s all about the piano and how I want the piano to sound.”

“I wasn’t planning on playing music in India,” muses Bennett, who first landed in Mumbai when his jazz vocalist wife Paula Jeanine went to India to study with renowned singer Dhanashree Pandit-Rai. Yet Bennett got on so well with Dhanashree, they began performing regularly together. Bennett returned again and again to India, as the gigs got bigger and bigger.

The reaction to Bennett’s emerging sound was overwhelmingly positive, from both Indian classical music aficionados and jazz fans, one reason Times Music, India’s biggest label, decided to sign him. With the encouragement of Dhanashree and her family, and of a growing circle of Indian musician friends, Bennett explored the raga and incorporated it with increasing subtlety and depth into his already well-developed style, a style shaped by his work as part of a Greek traditional band, New Orleans second-line pianist, and leader of his own eclectic trio at Japanese jazz club, among other experiences.

Though Bennett had a long history of incorporating non-Western sounds into his music, there are distinct challenges to performing raga-based compositions on the well-tempered piano. Yet Bennett has found ways to evoke the raga’s spirit. He turned to two-handed, drone-producing playing and to phrasing inspired by the breath patterns of classical singers to give his work the right feel.

In exploring these approaches, Bennett wanted his keys to do more than add a “vibe,” the sonic wash many Western musicians opt for when collaborating with Indian melodies and musicians. Bennett wanted to find ways to create a real musical partnership with the skilled performers he encountered, a melodic balance. “I am not backing them up. It’s a collaboration,” comments Bennett. “I am engaging the musicians, not giving an atmospheric setting for the music.”

This balance is palpable on tracks like “Samurai,” where Bennett’s precise, sparkling piano and intriguing melodica (featured on several tracks) contrast beautifully with the equally prominent, sinuous lines of young NYC-based South Indian violinist Arun Ramamurthy, over the shifting support of upright bassist Gaku Takanashi, the simmering tabla of Naren Budhkar, and the crack jazz drumming of Michael Wimberly. Budhkar, an integral part of the album's sound has played with Bennett in India and throughout the U.S. Their personal rapport was forged riding motorbikes in Budhkar’s hometown of Pune, and their musical rapport can be clearly heard on the duet track, “Nightfall (raga puriya part 2)."

One important touchstone for Bennett is the swara, the individual tone and its spiritual resonance. “What interests me in Indian classical music is the meaning of the note,” Bennett explains. “You don’t play all the notes all the time as fast as you can. You play one note and really develop it. When you are ready, you move on to the next note. I am influenced by minimalism in my own music, so it fits well with Indian music.”

Engaging with Indian music, Bennett uncovered a whole realm of possibilities in these notes and in the ragas that organized them. “Each raga is a world and you try to get deeper into the world of that particular raga,” notes Bennett. “As a result from section to section, the album sounds very different because the ragas themselves are very different.”

For Bennett, the worlds of the ragas intertwine with his own world, as a globally-minded musician in New York. Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath helped inspire Bennett’s three compositions in raga Hamsadwani, when the pianist encountered a swan — the namesake of that particular, light-hearted raga — in the wreckage of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Center. “I walked out to the temporary fence they’d put up,” Bennett remembers, “and all of a sudden this enormous swan comes out of the water and stares at me. I thought it was sign that I should record that raga.”

Other ragas suggest other, more profound places and experiences. Bennett became familiar with raga “Miyan ki Malhar," a serious, 400-year old raga associated with the monsoon, when he took lessons from a remarkable classical singer Raja Miyan, direct descendant of the Agra vocal tradition dating back to the 14th century. “He’s incredible, the John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
of classical vocalists,” Bennett says. “His voice starts off sounding like a lawn mower engine. He is more shaman than singer; it’s like he is invoking something. The raga is not just about the notes. It’s about invoking something deep, primordial. It wasn’t like I was thinking, ‘Wow, those are good ideas,’ when I heard him. It was just an overpowering thing.” “The Savage Garden” honors this intensity, creating a diverse, lushly rough-edged soundscape, while “This is How Brooklyn Sounds” reveals the raga’s more urbane side, as a soaring, heavily jazz-inflected piece.

Bennett gauges his success in maintaining a raga’s spirit and meaning not only by the reactions of Indian listeners, but by whether the piece feels right. He’s also found that some ragas, even when filtered through Bennett’s own musical sensibilities, continue to produce the effects traditionally associated with them. When Bennett performs “Miyan ki Malhar" live, it does just what it’s supposed to: bring on a rainstorm. “This summer I gave a concert in the little town of Hayden, Colorado,” Bennett recounts with a smile. “It hadn’t rained there for a month. I played the piece, and a half hour later, it starts to rain. Same story in St. Louis recently: The forecast called for no precipitation, but sure enough, half an hour after I played, it rained.” That’s the power of the raga.

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