The Living Room Sessions Volume 2 By Ravi Shankar
‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 2’
Review by Doug Heselgrave
Taking the plastic covering off of ‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 2’ CD was like opening those Christmas presents so painstakingly wrapped by my grandmother just days before she died nearly half a year earlier. As much as I was excited about hearing the music, and as much as I wanted to know what was inside my Grandmother’s present, I just didn’t want to acknowledge everything that opening them signified. There’d never be another Christmas dinner cooked by my Grandmother, and whatever collections, tributes, box sets or live releases of Ravi Shankar’s music we’ll be blessed with in the coming years, ‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 2’ was going to be the last CD produced with his critical input and oversight. So, I held out for as long as I could without listening to it, knowing that hearing it would be the end of an era, and that music once heard can never again be unheard.
My wife and daughters rolled their eyes. ‘Listen to it already! You could get hit by a bus today and you’d never hear it. You’ll jinx it by waiting. It’ll never sound as good in reality as it does in your imagination.” All of these comments – good sane advice, and fortunately, I wasn’t hit by a bus, and happily ‘Living Room Sessions Volume 2” is just as good as I could ever have hoped for.
Those of you who have spent time with ‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 1’ know the story. In his last year of life, Ravi wasn’t getting out much. Performances were cancelled and the customary rigor of going to a studio to record was out of the question, yet Mr. Shankar still had a lot to communicate, so impromptu sessions with Tamnoy Bose, his table player of recent years, were convened at the sitarist’s home in California. The first, award winning, collection offered relaxed, introspective performances of four ragas that reassured Shankar’s fans that whatever deference to age was required, he was still a musician exploring at the very cutting edge of his art form.
If anything, this new collection, ‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 2’ is even more daring and revealing than the first set was. The opening track ‘Rag Mishra Kafi’ is as subtle, lucid and exploratory as anything Shankar has ever recorded. Characterized by rich, deep and assured tones – rather than the high register blur of metallic notes that marked some of the ‘lightning’ Shankar conjured in the past – the three ragas in this set are played in the expansive, open ended, suggestive manner that marked the style of his maturity that he had been developing since the late eighties or early nineties. Notes are lingered over, caressed and cajoled into being, with a generous amount of time allowed for the effect of the notes to sink into the listener’s consciousness. This is music more joyful than Shankar ever allowed himself in the early years when he was out to conquer the world. This is music of confidence and repose, a love song to sound, itself. Who else but Ravi Shankar could – as he does at the end of the first raga – create new textures, sounds and paradigms by simply scraping along the frets of his instrument that are as pointed and daring in their quiet way as Jimi Hendrix or John McLaughlin at their most bombastic.
This isn’t to say that Ravi Shankar wasn’t capable of creating fire and fuss when he wanted to. ‘Raga Sindhi Bairavi’, the second piece on the album, plays around with the percussive, rhythmic aspects of his greatest work with Alla Rakha. The musical calls and responses on this track are absolutely breathtaking for their fluidity and intuition. The third piece, ‘Raga Bairavi’ is an 11 minute teaser that picks up on the energy of ‘Raga Sindhi Bairavi’ and explores some of its rhythms afresh, giving the listener a chance to recover and re-energize as Tamnoy Bose and Ravi have a lively musical conversation that gets pretty darned psychedelic at times as Shankar (in his role as trickster and provocateur) effortlessly shoots off complex sequences of notes that keep Bose hopping right until the finish.
Perhaps there is nothing new to say about Ravi Shankar’s music. Maybe the most appropriate response to perfection is to refrain from comment. Like John Cage’s four minutes of silence made us reconsider sound, the greatest respect for this music might be a blank page. I’m not sure. I’ve turned these words over dozens of times while listening to this record over and over again. I’ve heard it walking, driving, cooking, washing the dishes, lying in the back yard and watching the birds fly overhead, and each time it reveals a new aspect of the universe unfolding. Really.
There are at least a thousand different ways to approach this music.
On ‘The Living Room Sessions Volume 2’ we hear Ravi Shankar as architect and intuitive mathematician – constructing, building, revising, creating blueprints of sound, unplanned and in real time. As in Bach’s music, there is an impeccable internal order to guide the listener, but there is a playfulness and openness to surprise and caprice that prevents Shankar’s music from sounding simply astoundingly accomplished.
Those who enjoy searching for clues about an artist’s work within his or her biography could easily come to the conclusion that the emotional maturity Shankar wrote of so poignantly in his second autobiography ‘My Music, My Life’ that comes from accepting responsibility for one’s actions and how they may have hurt other people, began to work its way into his music. He describes how in the earlier years of his career, as he went out into the marketplace trying to be noticed – as one must if one has to earn a living – speed and dexterity formed a large part of his calling card. He was demonstrating that he could play as quickly and with as many dynamics as the rock artists of the day, and that beyond that he had the benefit of an ancient tradition to draw upon that substituted for the drugs and hedonism that the young guitar Gods on the same bills as him relied on. When he wanted to ‘rip it up’ and play fast as he did at the Monterey Pop festival, he was without equal. It’s a blazing and spellbinding performance, but for my taste, as I’ve grown older, I have come to enjoy Ravi Shankar’s later work more than anything else he recorded. I prefer not to see his evolving style as deference to age and an acceptance of physical limitations, but as a conscious choice to explore other realms. Watch the DVDs of ‘Tenth Decade’ or ‘In Portrait: Between Two Worlds’ that feature recent live performances to see what I’m talking about.
Before turning in this story, I listened through ‘Living Room Sessions Volume 2’ once last time, trying hard to hear if anything was missing. Were there any flubbed lines? Failings? Missed opportunities? Any veering towards simplicity out of deference to slowed reflexes? And, I have to say no. Listening for errors, I could hear none. Instead, I was treated once again to the exquisite, delicate beauty of Ravi Shankar and his sitar at play with all of the possibilities that a lifetime had revealed to him, dancing sounds into being, the equal of which we’ll truly never hear again.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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