Saturday, June 24, 2017

Vijay Iyer and Friends at Ojai at Berkeley

The long-running, annual summer contemporary music festival in the Southern California hamlet of Ojai has been producing a satellite event with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley for the last seven years. The NoCal version of the SoCal festival usually features a few highlights of the previous week's outdoor music fest which is programmed by a different Music Director each year. Those directors have ranged from Igor Stravinsky to Michael Tilson Thomas to Pierre Boulez to Kent Nagano to Mark Morris. This year's leader was jazz pianist and MacArthur "Genius" Vijay Iyer, which brought a welcome infusion of Bay Area, Indian audiences to Zellerbach Hall last weekend.

Last Saturday afternoon, there was a program entitled Vijay Iyer and Friends: Confluence which was an improvisatory jam session among four musicians with roots in Western Jazz and Classical Indian music. The only reason I attended was to join a good friend who had just returned from her first, transformative trip to India, and was not expecting much because I have never been a Western jazz or Indian music fan, mostly out of ignorance. So it was a special surprise when the afternoon turned out to be one of the more memorable musical experiences of my life.

In Vijay Iyer's introduction of his friends, he noted that saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has been a collaborator for decades in various jazz ensembles while the tabla master Zakir Hussain who has played with seemingly every interesting musician in the world over the last five decades "needed no introduction." Then Iyer told about being interviewed by a magazine and asked who his favorite Indian musician was, and he thought, "Well, nobody's going to read this so I might as well be honest," and he named the Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam above as his top pick. "As it turned out, she did read it, and managed to get my phone number, and suddenly I was receiving a call from her saying let's work together, and here we are." (All four are in the blurry photo below.)

"This is the second time we have played together in public, and I'm hoping there will be more chances in the future," Iyer said, and after listening and watching these supremely talented, gifted musicians play with each other, I hope so too. The set list was a mixture of compositions by Iyer and Mahanthappa along with a few Indian pop and classical favorites that half of the audience knew and could clap along with.

The saxophone was a little overwhelming in sound and a bit too Western Jazz in style for my tastes, but watching Hussain and Sairam throw each other rhythmic curves while seated cross-legged next to each other was thrilling. Meanwhile, Iyer offered a seamless, unobtrusive, endlessly fascinating set of riffs on the piano. It was the 64-year-old vocalist Aruna Sairam, however, who took this performance into the sublime. On her website is the following statement: "When on stage Aruna enters into another realm. The audience, while listening to her and watching her perform, experiences a timeless and spaceless sensation." Ordinarily, that kind of hyperbole would strike me as silly, but in this case was the transcendant truth.

There is a wonderful quote on the website from a 2011 London Evening Standard review that sums it up: "Hail a New Queen of Soul…The mesmerising star of this concert at the Royal Albert Hall was South Indian singer Aruna Sairam. She is a soul singer up there with Aretha Franklin. I was trying, and failing, to think of a classical singer with the same status and artistry – Jesse Norman, Cecilia Bartoli? I'm afraid not. Aruna Sairam has the universal power to take you to another world." Stumbling across her performance last Saturday was like discovering a Maria Callas or Leontyne Price or the Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum without any idea of what was coming. For a taste of her divinity, check out a few of these YouTube videos by clicking here and join the diva worship cult for Aruna Sairam.

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