Issue #78: Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz by T.K. Ramamoorthy

August 14, 2017

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Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz by T.K. Ramamoorthy
Released In 1969
Released By His Master’s Voice

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Laura Burroughs

Editor’s Note: This album is also known under the name Jazz Jazz Jazz, due to the exclusion of the proper title on the album cover for some versions.

I think my mistake was telling him I had gotten a dog. Lula Bell was a five-year-old hound, the sprightly kind that loves a huge backyard and tumbling toddlers and a stream trickling through the yard. What she got, though, was a heartbroken woman, sniffling her way through February after ending a relationship with her easily offended, controlling, abusive boyfriend she still loved. How I could love someone who screamed at me when alone, only to bewilderingly hold open doors for me in the next moment in public, I couldn’t process, so I got the dog. A month, two, went on with late drunken nights singing Band of Horses and petting this dog I always knew I couldn’t keep. When he texted I miss you, I wrote back I got a dog, and things fell downhill from there. He walked her with me, started finding out the intricacies of my life again, and one in one of those bittersweet moments I confessed that I missed the T. K. Ramamoorthy album Jazz Jazz Jazz, that I had tried to find it but couldn’t uncover a copy less than $80 anywhere.

When he bought it for me, I should have known this wouldn’t end well.

A once beloved album, it sat like a cursed object in my house. My eyes would wander to it in the evening, my hands keeping on safe things like The Beatles and Judy Collins, but after two or three whiskeys I slipped the pristine vinyl from its sleeve. Bouncy, happy, the album tells a story never uttered, but pushed through in horns, clattering drums, a driving emotion behind each movement of each song, but one free for the listener to discern. Lying in bed one day, having lazily smoked out of his window only to lie back, legs entwined, I told him of the caterpillars I saw, dancing across mushrooms in a vivid jungle, the images crisp and clean to me in the music. Foreshadowing the theatrical score career where Ramamoorthy would end up, each track is its own little thought, scene, played out across the album in a cohesively emotional way. There is a distinctly Indian flair rippling in the keys, morphed at times from Western rock’n’roll, but with a looseness that can only be recognized if you know the extreme heat that coats a body inside and out.

Some men, when they’re guilty, buy you things. You’ll expect it, sure, but choose to ignore the rocky undertones, the downward twist of your friends’ mouths when you show them the ring or t-shirt or movie stub. When you want to believe something, a little part of you works its deception on the logic centers in your brain to cloud and shadow. What better way to hide cruelty than between the dips and swirls of Jazz Jazz Jazz? How best to obscure all the times he yelled at you in front of your friends, drunken wrath frothing the corners of his mouth, than to highlight those sunbeams dancing on the wood floor like the butterflies you said you heard? This bridge back into a crumbled relationship, one I’d play in the ashes of for another six months, has been reclaimed, repurposed, restored into the happy clatter of a dinner party or of sipping sangria on a sweltering back porch with my husband, and rightfully so. This is not the music of the broken-hearted.

Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite

Tiruchirapalli Krishnaswamy Ramamoorthy, also known as Mellisai Mannar (The King Of Light Music).

It is easy to listen to T.K. Ramamoorthy’s Fabulous Notes Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz and simply enjoy it for what it is: a fusion of ’60s jazz and Indian music. I am as passionate about learning as I am music, so I became really interested in the word carnatic. What does it mean and does it have anything to do with jazz? Carnatic music is one of two types of classical music from India (the other is Hindustani, more popular in the West due to Ravi Shankar’s influence on rock music), which is carefully composed and performed. I was initially confused as to what this has to do with jazz, particularly Ramamoorthy’s instrumental record, as the voice is such a focus of this type of music. But when the ensemble performs a composition (learned note for note), there is a lot of improvisation through both extended solos and the voice, which can expand on the composed raga (the sung melody). With such a strong improvisational tradition, combining jazz with carnatic music makes a lot of sense. Ramamoorthy, a well-known soundtrack composer in India, brings the two together flawlessly. The flute melody in “Begada” reminds me of some of the melodies I heard in the carnatic music I sampled. The rhythm that is intrinsic in jazz allows for more movement than the cycles of carnatic music, which tends to sound like a drone (part of the tala, or cyclical rhythms), because of the spirituality and meditation in its compositions. Thus “Mohana” feels light and bouncy in both its melody (the carnatic influence) and the jazz-influenced rhythm. I am so excited that Laura picked something with so much depth — I will be reading about and listening to Indian classical music and the work of T.K. Ramamoorthy (I also greatly enjoyed his soundtracks) for a long time to come.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ

It’s funny that from a standpoint of purely listening to the sounds on Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz, what T.K. Ramamoorthy has created is very easy on the ears. The record is from a few decades back so the sound quality itself presents immediately with a vintage feel; one that belongs on a nice turntable setup and that will ring out with a warmth that, while it lacks the meticulous definition thrust upon albums of now, is completely perfect for the mentality of the past it elicits. 1969 wasn’t about obsessive clarity of sound but of conveying emotion and attractive human imperfection. The physical setting this style and arrangement of sprightly jazz brings to mind — with the upbeat jangly piano, trumpet, and pliable minor melody weaved by both in the opener “Gowla” — is equally imperfect: a bustling cafe, bar, or even street nook, of southern Miami, or Havana, Cuba comes to mind; before the latter’s cultural and technological deep freeze (which is now starting to see a slow but steady thaw). Ramamoorthy of course, and a hefty amount of the instrumental fare featured on here (e.g. the tabla, veena, mridangam) are not Floridian or Cuban descent or even long-term residence. It’s plain as day from the song titles (“Udaya Ravi Chandrika,” “Kanakangi“) to the album credits, that this is a record sculpted with south Indian compositional styles and musical timbres in mind. Even just “Carnatic” in the title, is not a fancy adjective descriptor but is a regionally-specific system of Indian music that employs the use of ragam — an organization of notes likened to a scale but arranged and understood in a manner different from those in western music. Yet somehow, despite the numerous and very prominent use of such culturally unique sounds and writing styles, Fabulous Notes doesn’t alienate western listeners by overwhelming them with unusual musical patterns or usurious use of Ramamoorthy’s Indian instrumental arsenal. Simultaneously, even with the inclusion of western fare like bass clarinet, saxophone, guitar, and double bass, the album doesn’t pander or water itself down to the point of only giving an eastern facade. Ramamoorthy, who became known for his adeptness with creating gripping compositions in Indian styles of music, managed to connect just the right amount of western direction and eastern authenticity to make an album that effortlessly bridges an often unstable gap.

Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier

Even before the dawn of recorded media and the harnessing of radio waves, borders could stop people but they couldn’t stop music. Traveling — literally — on the trade winds, musicians brought new sounds and instruments with them every time their vessel tied at a port or dropped anchor offshore. So, who knows what influences already combined to create the Carnatic style, which dates back to the 14th Century? But we do know that radio and records led to an increased cross-fertilization. Consider the fact that an ingredient of Fela’s Afrobeat was Cuban dance music, which was created when African slaves encountered Spanish and indigenous culture on a large island in the Caribbean. Their blend boomeranged back to Nigeria and Fela added it to his version of highlife, another type of African pop music, to create magic. Now, what we have on this T.K. Ramamoorthy’s odd little record is also fascinating, especially since the version of jazz that he introduces into the Carnatic tradition seems to come directly from the 1930s. I hear Barney Bigard, Jack Teagarden, and Louis Armstrong more than John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or the other jazz cats who were making a big noise in 1969, when Fabulous Notes was recorded. For this reason, I think I prefer the least “jazzy” songs on the album, like “Byag – Maya Malava Gowla,” which has almost as much “exotic” atmosphere as a Martin Denny lounge groove. I would not be surprised if “Peruvian” singer Yma Sumac jumped on this track, interjecting her multi-octave voice among the sinuous flute, swooping violin and chattering percussion. Ramamoorthy’s labor of love is just another great reminder that in music, no matter your tradition or geographic location, anything goes. The only limit is your imagination.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

T. K. Ramamoorthy in his youth alongside M. S. Viswanathan, whom he partnered with to write the score for over 100 Indian films from 1952 to 1965.

In July, I rooted through my dad’s record collection for the eleventy-seventh time and pulled out something called Bach Humbug! Or Jazz Goes Baroque, by the George Gruntz Quartet. Not so coincidentally, when I decided earlier this week to finally dig into the Modern Jazz Quartet albums I’d extracted from my dad’s collection years ago, I ended up spinning something called Blues On Bach. I knew my dad liked classical, and I knew he liked jazz, but I didn’t realize he was so into the idea of those things being combined. Call it fusion, or cross-pollination, or intertextuality… but I think T. K. Ramamoorthy was thinking along the same lines. By marrying jazz and India’s classical Carnatic tradition, Ramamoorthy engaged in a conversation that I think was — and is — well worth having. Quick point of clarification: Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz flows wonderfully, whereas Bach Humbug! can feel like worlds colliding. (Making harpsichord work in the context of jazz is a tall order, given the instrument’s failings in the velocity sensitivity and sustain departments.) But Carnatic-Jazz shows how instructive and revelatory limitations can be. Hearing instruments trying to keep up with new stylistic demands brings you closer to understanding what makes those instruments tick. Guitars, with their pesky frets, aren’t built to express microtones, yet “Kanakangi” grasps at that kind of tonal fluidity — without a slide! Conversely, “Gowla” illustrates how the piano, with its precisely tuned strings, can’t possibly break out of its tonal rigidity, even as it expresses melody with spacious beauty and creativity. Ramamoorthy allows these comfort zones to overlap, as people and their musical tools are pushed to find common ground. That’s multiculturalism at its finest, and I’m heartened and revived by listening to it.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

T.K. Ramamoorthy’s Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz is like a test of all the tangential musical knowledge I picked up in college of the genres of music I only got a taste of as a classical musician. The genre mashup is right in the title: both traditional Indian Carnatic and Jazz music place a heavy emphasis on scales, rhythmic patterns, and improvisation, so this pairing is a no-brainer, really. It’s interesting, though, that as the album goes on, the style shifts gradually from predominantly jazz music with Indian inflection to jazz-inflected but predominantly Indian music that’s a bit more experimental. Opener “Gowla” is a classic jazz combo of piano, drums, string bass, and a lead trumpet with a standard jazz structure, but closer “Rasikapriya” incorporates prominent classic Indian instrumentation like tabla drums and sitar, among others and meanders its way through the track. Ramamoorthy also includes a number of interesting lead instruments along the way, from the standard sax and trumpet horns to woodwinds like clarinet (and bass clarinet) and flutes, and even some solo strings (the rhythm section gets their moments throughout the album as well). With its easy grooves, mix of both western and eastern tonality (Hello, quarter-tones!), and fun, adventurous spirit, this is a jazz fusion album that will make you look past the totally uncool “jazz fusion” label.

David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer

Every crate digger aspires to search for records overseas. Part of it is finding sample material that none of your American counterparts would ever find in a million years. The other half of the thrill is in seeing how the rest of the world interprets American music. For the past hundred years, America has been the epicenter of popular music, from jazz to rock to hip hop. The rest of the world follows, but puts their own local twist to it, and in the case of T.K. Ramamoorthy, adds some welcomed elements that his American counterparts would have never thought of. What I like most about this record is the interplay between Indian percussion and traditional jazz rhythms. I’ve always marveled at the unique timbre of Indian percussion instruments, and to hear them juxtaposed against bassoons, guitars, and funky piano stabs is quite an experience. Take “Sahana,” where the local percussion seamlessly bends back and forth into a normal jazz step, almost without the listener ever noticing. The same goes for “Udaya Ravi Chandrika,” which features a killer horn break at the end that I am definitely sampling in the near future. What a perfect title: Fabulous Notes And Beats.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Jazz has always been a genre that I’ve never felt like I was qualified to write about. I know that there aren’t mandatory qualifications that everyone needs to meet before writing about a topic (I mean, we are on the internet and everyone here always voices their opinions about everything, regardless of whether or not they should), but as someone who doesn’t listen to a whole lot of jazz, I still feel weird writing about it — almost as if I’m infiltrating some exclusive club where I know I’m bound to be outed the moment I make the slightest wrong move. I’m aware of how silly that sounds, but it happens almost every time I write about jazz. You might be thinking “But Dustin, just two weeks ago you casually mentioned Dave Brubeck when talking about GoGo Penguin. How can you say you feel like a complete outsider?” and to that, I respond that GoGo Penguin, while most certainly influenced by jazz, are not strictly a jazz act, and that’s an important distinction in my mind. However, T.K. Ramamoorthy, and this week’s album, Fabulous Notes And Beats Of The Indian Carnatic-Jazz, are wholly within the jazz realm (the album art doesn’t even have the title present, just the word “jazz” written three times in all caps), hence my overly cautious introduction explaining that I don’t believe that I am thoroughly versed in jazz music. I can’t explain what it is about “Ranjani” that draws me into it, or why “Natta” relaxes me, but I do know that Fabulous Notes is an accessible album. On a technical level, it’s precise and well played, but not in an overly avant-garde manner that’s alienating to casual listeners. If I had listened to more albums like this one during my formative years, I would feel more comfortable, or at least more qualified, writing about jazz. There’s no pretension, there’s just music.

Dustin Gates (@cmoncheermeup)
Relapsed Pop Culture Junkie

Known mostly for his prowess as a violinist and film composer, this Indo-Jazz recording is a lesser known, but robust example of TK’s visionary brilliance.

I really enjoy jazz as a general rule, and with my typical policy of doing almost no research before listening to our Off Your Radar selections for the week, I didn’t know much else about this record besides that it was jazz. Therefore, I was looking forward to hearing it. The opening track, “Gowla,” started strong with an introduction that made me think of Miles Davis’s excellent Sketches Of Spain album, before dropping into some solid hard bop sounds that totally worked for me. As the record moved on, however, I began noticing a lot of other things going on — the heavy rhythms and multi-layered percussion which sometimes reminded me of Latin jazz percussionist Ray Barretto, who was doing his best work in NYC in the mid to late ’60s, around the same time T.K. Ramamoorthy was making this album in India. Some other moments here, especially “Byag – Maya Malava Gowla,” made me think of gamelan, a traditional Indonesian musical form driven primarily by percussion. Towards the end of the album, I picked up on some even more surprising resonances — “Kanakangi“‘s use of guitar chords invoked some of the same Eastern scale progressions used within instrumental surf music of the sort Dick Dale is known for, while some of the riffs on album-ender “Rasikapriya,” which again incorporated guitar, were almost metal-sounding. What all of it had in common was a powerful, driving rhythm and an engrossing instrumental ambience that kept you paying close attention throughout. When I learned that Ramamoorthy is best known as a film soundtrack composer, it all fell into place. This album is full of evocative pieces that inspire stories to spring to mind just from the notes and beats Ramamoorthy uses. And yeah, it is pretty fabulous.

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground

This was fantastic! I’m not incredibly familiar with jazz and not at all familiar with Indian music, but this was completely enjoyable from front to back. The drum solo on “Natta” drove home the message that I need to listen to far more jazz music with killer solos of its ilk. Meanwhile, “Sahana” did things with melodic repetition that I’m still trying to figure out. Every track had a different flavor to it, and while I definitely had my favorites, each one was such a delight to listen to. Once again, this newsletter has revealed an album that I never would have stumbled upon on my own, but now seems absolutely indispensable.

James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts

Like most music fans, my exposure to Indian music mostly begins and ends with the George Harrison contributions on later Beatles recordings. “Within You Without You,” “Love You To,” and the criminally underrated “The Inner Light.” They were breaths of fresh air in The Beatles’ catalogue, as well as affirmations of the band’s (specifically Harrison’s) belief that music is universal. This Indian-jazz hybrid record is wildly different than those three songs listed above, but I believe it accomplishes the same exact things in an infinitely more rewarding way. It can serve as a breath of fresh air in the normal listening routine of any rabid music fan, whether you normally seek out warm Americana tones, coarse punk messages, or bombastic R&B grooves. While it won’t necessarily lead you to seek out the ridiculously impressive discography of one T.K. Ramamoorthy, it’s perhaps the ideal record to pick when you just want to shake things up, music wise. On the other point, it certainly solidifies the belief that music is universal, being right at home with any jazz recording… perhaps ever. You can find feel Count Basie and Artie Shaw in the relaxed swing, find traces of Miles Davis sprinkled throughout, and even stumble upon the neo-jazz millions adored in La La Land. Of course, there’s tons of Indian flair here, something that becomes more prevalent and noticeable as the record progresses, after it’s already assimilated you into the jazz mindset. And as the Indian tones become more apparent, it’s a great message on how different cultures can seamlessly interweave with each other when given the chance. Sadly, this record truly is a forgotten or even lost classic, but luckily, you can still experience it and let it expand your horizons, for a minimum of forty minutes and maybe longer if you’re so inclined.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Next Week’s Selection:
Sympathy by GABI
Chosen By David Munro

Off Your Radar Newsletter

Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: James Anderson, Laura Burroughs, Erin Calvert, Catherine Dempsey, Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Carly Green, Kira Grunenberg, Davy Jones, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, & Jeremy Shatan

Logo By Matt Klimas


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