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30th May 1999

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Sounds of Jazz fusion still cool

Review of Concert by John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Fusions, at the Hilton Colombo, on Monday 24.

A decidedly avuncular John Mayer stood before an ensemble of very young players, who could well be his students in England. They good-naturedly responded to his exhorting them towards levels of improvised and competently charted performance, but yet, happened to arrive at a point some distance away from the joyous spontaneity that defined Mayer's attempts and achievement in this same genre more than 30 years ago. Agreed, what did all of that matter to an audience who arrived in their seats nearly a full half hour late, and sat like the monuments at Abu Simbel in the frigid expanse of the Hilton ballroom!

What did come through, was that this was a concert,a highly organized affair (if not rigidly), fulfilling a composer's intent to structure a performance along a set of guidelines . In this case, such control was exercised (supervised) by Mayer himself, a genius in such organization and in sculpting textures, mixing elements of the music of North and South India, with established practices in Western and (so-called) Jazz music.

Comparisons may be odious, but it was difficult not to recall the startlingly different attempts of 1965 (in the context of that time), even with some nostalgia , of Mayer with Joe Harriott, Pat Smythe and Kenny Wheeler; especially with the Hilton concert featuring several of Mayer's 'old' compositions that we have come to remember with affection. The evening started off with just one of such pieces, "Piloo", based on an evening raga. We were also delighted by the inclusion of "Megha" and the esoteric and impressionist "Song Before Sunrise" both of which were also from those monumental sessions of 30 odd years ago.

"Piloo" we noticed, with its frontline of muted trumpet and flute, was pretty much along the lines of the structured neatness of the West Coast sound, as epitomized in the work of say, Bud Shank. The versatility of the band was well in evidence as it travelled through a gamut of Indian inflected tempi and encompassed everything for hard swinging hard-bop , through the spirit of Havana to touch on Caribbean reggae as well! There were equal measures of California Cool, the exoticism of Ellington-Strayhorn, and the 'heat' of Maynard Ferguson in the arrangement for the ensemble.

Sadly, the frontline, which would usually include saxophone was thinned on account of the indisposition of one of the players. Yet, they acquitted themselves commendably, albeit appearing somewhat bewildered at times by the complexity of maintaining the scalar reference of the raga as opposed to the 'changes'(chords to indicate movement in harmony) that improvising Jazzmen are usually comfortable with. As an example, Dave Smith(trumpet) seemed held in a straitjacket as he strove to remain within the notes of the raga in Piloo and Megha, but broke loose exultantly in the Latin tinged "Myan Ki Melhar" to provide us with a Roy Hargrove flavoured lyricism in his improvised solo.

Pianist Simon Colam (recently graduated from Guildhall), on the other hand, adapted himself by superimposing well-tempered chord structures on top of the micro-tonal raga scale, and usually succeeded in taking the music in a different direction - at one moment employing the elegance of say Michel Petrucciani, and then, in another piece would lapse into the ebullient hard bop of Jacky Terrasson .

In this, he was ably supported by the rhythm of Dave Foster's electric bass, and Andrew Bratt, who one can sense, is a drummer more at home in the mainstream; but having said that, he does work with other elements commendably, when he also settled for the South Indian Ghatam at times! Through all of this, the Indo aspect is shored up by Jonathan Mayer's (the leader's son ; himself a fine composer) sitar and Harginder Matharu's tabla .

Despite the commercial crassness inherent in the term at this time, what we did have demonstrated was that the fusion of streams of musical traditions and rhythms is not out of date, and can still offer challenges to players - and who better to prove that, than the forerunner of the trend, the uncompromising John Mayer himself!

- Arun Dias Bandaranaike
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