Ravi Shankar – The Living Room Sessions Part 1

A review by Douglas Heselgrave

The most recent release of informal music  from Ravi Shankar may be the 92 year old sitarist’s best recording ever

It is hard to remember the last time I enjoyed listening to a CD as much as I have Ravi Shankar’s ‘The Living Room Sessions.’  Over the past two weeks, I have played it more times than I can count, and like only truly great music can, it sounds better each time I hear it.  At first, I suspected that it was perhaps the ‘newness’ and ‘freshness’ of the performances that was influencing my judgment of the music.  Add to that the appealing aesthetics of a man in his tenth decade recording informally in his own living room accompanied only by a tabla player, and it’s easy to understand how critical assessment could take a back seat to basking in the life affirming alchemy that allowed this recording to come into existence at all. 

Much has recently been made of Shankar’s advancing years and how there are so few musicians of his generation and caliber performing in the world today.  But, to let the conversation dwell in age and demographics too long does his continually evolving music a great disservice.  For, I am convinced that Ravi Shankar is playing better now than he ever has before.  To confirm this, I began listening through my collection of Ravi Shankar’s LPs, cassettes and CDs dating back to his heyday of popularity in the 1960’s and his earliest collaborations with artists such as Yehudi Menhuin and George Harrison.   To say that it is an amazing and diverse body of work would be a terrible understatement.  Listening to his defining performances at Monterey Pop and Woodstock, it’s impossible not to be floored by Shankar’s speed and technical virtuosity.  Notes fly so thick and fast, it’s almost impossible to keep up, and when he ‘took it down’ a notch or two, the meditative qualities of his excursions through some of the slower movements in his ragas were imbued with a poignancy and grace that no other music can hold a candle to.  With such physical, emotional and philosophical command of his music, one would think there was nothing left for Shankar to explore or improve upon.  But, happily, this is not the case, and a little time spent listening to Ravi Shankar’s recent recordings such as the 2002 concert DVD of ‘Raga Anadi Kalyan and Raga Rangeela Piloo’ reveal an artist who has continued to change and develop over the years. 

Ravi Shankar has always been a virtuoso performer, but he has also become much, much more than that.  These days, he’s not packing in quite as many notes per second or taking as many lightning fast trips through side melodies and musical allusions as he once did, but the nuances in his playing, and the subtle levels of differentiation within his phrasing have never sounded more evocative or convincing than they do now.  The four ragas contained in ‘The Living Room Series’ do not represent the meandering, lost thoughts of an old man trying to find his way to melody’s door.  Rather, they evoke a sense of freedom, and of unhurried timeless exploration and experimentation.  The ragas he’s selected to play are mostly familiar old favourites, but Shankar approaches them without anxiety as he stops longer to appreciate or drink the waters from certain melodic ideas that he would have simply ‘ripped through’ in the past. 

‘The Living Room Sessions Part 1’ offers Shankar’s listeners a more complete evocation, a deeper exploration of ragas that have – in some cases -been part of his repertoire for decades.  The first two pieces, ‘Raga Malgunji’ and ‘Raga Khamaj’ are slow and introspective while the dynamic ‘Raga Kedara’ and ‘Raga Satyajit’ (an original composition commemorating the great Indian film director, Satyajit Ray) with their fiery repeating patterns of syncopated notes prove that Shankar can still play as quickly as the best of them when the music demands it.  Of these, ‘Raga Khamaj’ is the one I return to the most often.  The music is slow, but with its many textures arising at the same time, as gently plucked strings find counterpoint with the ‘fatter’ shimmering tones, it’s often hard to believe that only one person is playing.  Special mention must be made of Tanmoy Bose’s accompaniment on the tabla.  In every instance, his rhythms are encouraging, empathetic and never intrusive or overpowering as he finds just the right tone to complement Shankar’s sitar.

‘The Living Room Sessions Part 1” is absolutely stunning and may be the best of Ravi Shankar’s literally hundreds of recordings.  Music this divine goes a long way to counterbalancing all of the darkness, greed and horror that exists in the world today.  It represents the best that humans are capable of and simply not to be missed. 

This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com

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Tags: dougheselgrave, georgeharrison, ravishankar

Comment by Chip Saam on April 3, 2012 at 4:02am

Douglas - Very nice review.  I will certainly check out Ravi's new record.

Comment by Katherine Rhoades on April 3, 2012 at 7:32am

Thanks for the post!  I will definitely have to check it out...

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.