Arun Luthra’s Konnakol Jazz Project ‘Live in New York’ CD (Sweet Soul Sound) 4/5

New York based saxophonist /composer Arun Luthra is one of a small group of American jazz musicians of Indian heritage who have continued to explore the possibilities of fusing the modern post-bop sound with elements of Indian classical music. Konnakol is the art of performing percussion syllables vocally in South Indian Carnatic music. The voice serves a similar purpose to that of a percussion instrument and each syllable signifies what stroke or combination of strokes the percussionist must use. For this live recording saxophonist and Konnakol performer Luthra teams up with pianist James Francies, bassist Thomson Kneeland, drummer Jordan Perrison and special guest, percussionist Anantapadmanabhan. And it is indeed the percussionist, playing the mridangam, along with Luthra’s Indian percussive vocalising, that gives this album its unique flavour.

The album begins with Indian voice and percussion working in unison, with drums combining skillfully before “Perc-kal-ude Torna” swings into full jazz mode with the full band combining well. The tune is then largely driven by Luthra’s free-flowing bebop-esque tenor sax, with intelligent backing from piano, bass, drums and percussion. The overall sound of this recording isn’t great… perfectly acceptable but by today’s standards a little lacking, but the upside of that is that it sounds like you’re listening to a 1960’s jazz club recording, so it’s not all bad. “The Divvy-up Dance” has a wonderful feel to it, with Francies’ exploratory piano playing leading the way. Luthra switches to soprano sax with aplomb, and after a short mid-tune bridge, the mridangam and drums take centre stage for what sounds like a mini-duel. Luthra’s soaring soprano rounds this piece off nicely. The fierce energy of the music being performed is relentless, but there is room for the band to breathe on the slightly more reflective “KJP”. As with all of the compositions presented here, the music is written in a predominantly Western contemporary jazz style, with elements of classical Indian music being incorporated in certain sections of the tunes. In the main this works very well, but there are times when it doesn’t quite sound intuitively integrated, a little too preconceived perhaps. But that doesn’t take anything away from the vibe that the composer and performers successfully create. The Coltrane influence is strong on the wonderful “Soon Starts Now”, a thrilling piece of music that has just about everything going for it. Brilliant writing is matched by the performances, especially the stand-out soloing of bassist Thomson Kneeland. “Spin City” has an old-school feel to it, with the bass, drums and percussion underpinning things nicely for the sax and piano to do their thing. This tune has such a tight groove it’s impossible not to be moving your body in waves of appreciation by the end of it. The final track “Collective” is a very impressive piece that perhaps best integrates the Indian vocal and percussive elements into the jazz idiom. The band are in full flow here, with a sense of sheer pleasure emanating from the music being performed.

This is most definitely music that should be seen as well as being heard. And to that end, Arun Luthra’s Konnakol Jazz Project have four UK gigs lined up over the next few days. Well worth checking them out if you’re in the area:
Monday 19th August, 11pm at Ronnie Scott’s, 47 Frith Street, Soho, London.
Tuesday 20th August, 9pm at Kansas Smitty’s, 63-65 Broadway Market, London.
Wednesday 21st August, 9pm at Oliver’s Jazz Bar, 9 Nevada Street, Greenwich.
Friday 23rd August, 7pm at The Verdict, 159 Edward Street, Brighton.

Mike Gates