Glow of Benares
Glow of Benares
With Glow of Benares, saxophonist/composer Lars Møller (b. 1966) summarises 25 years of working with Indian music. On this recording, whose title refers to the holiest of the sacred cities in Hinduism, Indian melodic ragas and rhythms are combined with the orchestral formats of jazz and western music, as the two Indian musicians Kala Ramnath and Abhijit Banerjee meet the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and the Danish Sinfonietta.
Aboard a boat on its way down the Ganges as it winds through the sacred city of Benares. © Ole Udengaard
Encounter on the Ganges
by Christian Munch-Hansen
Aboard this cruise liner of a record production you experience an unprecedented encounter of the western big band tradition with chamber music and the classical musical culture of northern India. Here musical idioms combine in a colourful world of melodies and rhythms which also plumbs the emotional depths of human life.
The saxophonist, composer and arranger Lars Møller (b. 1966) stands at the head of a dazzling collaboration of Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and The Danish Sinfonietta with the two stars of Indian music, the violinist Kala Ramnath and the tabla player Abhijit Banerjee; a cultural encounter borne up by mutual admiration and empathy which is perhaps best explained with a reference to a video montage made by the photographer Ole Udengaard in connection with a visit to India in 2016 in the company of Lars Møller and several of the Danish musicians.
We travel with the camera aboard a boat on its way down the Ganges as it winds through the ancient, sacred city of Benares, also called Varanasi. As a viewer one is confronted by both the alien and the exotically fascinating: thick smoke drifts across the water, birds flutter against the warm glow of the afternoon sky, which soon becomes twilight, and along the banks people have gathered at blazing bonfires in front of temples and residences. You can almost smell and feel the place (the video can be seen at www.glowofbenares.com).
Lars Møller has tried to capture this quite special atmosphere musically with the title number of the album, ‘Glow of Benares’, based on a so-called Raga Shree, which incarnates the mood of melancholy and spiritual longing. It is the very essence of this glow. The sound of two cultures that meet.
The meeting has been long in coming. It is around 25 years since Lars Møller studied jazz in New York with among others Dave Liebman as teacher, and was granted his ‘bebop licence’. But with a yen for new challenges Møller then packed his suitcase and travelled to India to study the ancient, traditional reed instrument the shenai with the masters Anant Lal and his son Daya Shankar. Over four years he spent periods in New Delhi and through rigorous training acquired the basic skills of the musical system and expressive register of the ragas. “One of the most important points is to learn to hear, feel and reproduce the core phrases and microtonal expressions of the ragas, and thus to learn at the personal and universally human level to tune into and master these archetypal feelings,” explains Lars Møller.
The Indian musical system goes back thousands of years along with the spiritual traditions. Ragas consist of a kind of loosely structured melodies and are recognized from particular turns of phrase that meander ornamentally over a constant drone. There are hundreds of traditional ragas, and an Indian with a trained ear recognizes them as a jazz listener recognizes a jazz standard. Associated with the ragas too are particular emotional expressions, rasas, for example sorrow, joy, longing, fear and sadness.
To this we can add the rhythmic dimension. The so-called talas are rhythmic cyclic patterns built up over a pulse of 7, 12 or 16 beats, for example, and can be played with many different subdivisions. Tihai are special rhythmic cadences used to give the piece structure. On the Indian tala system Lars Møller comments: “As far as mathematical complexity is concerned the aspirations are as high as in Bach’s fugues or in Darmstadt serialism”.
Formally, the classical Indian concert follows a fixed pattern. It opens with a slow, meditative section, Alap, in rubato. This is succeeded by a clearly pulse-borne section, Jor/Jalla, until the tabla player launches into one or more fixed talas in various tempi. The raga builds up dynamically to a climax and ends with a Tihai.
After his studies in India Lars Møller brought his experiences with him into the Lars Møller Group, which became one of Scandinavia’s leading bands in the second half of the 1990s. The group toured in large parts of the world and was able to play at the Blue Note in New York. In recent years Møller has resumed his immersion in the language of the ragas on the saxophone alongside his orchestral work. As always, Møller goes determinedly and seriously to work. He has for example had a saxophone extension made, an extra sounding length on a frame which enables him to lower the fundamental note and thus play ragas with the note G as a drone.
But over the past two decades Lars Møller has also developed a great deal as a composer, arranger and conductor in the modern big band tradition of among others Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer and Maria Schneider. He has done commissioned work and recorded albums with leading Scandinavian and Central European big bands, not least The Orchestra, Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and the Danish National Big Band. Today Lars Møller stands as one of Europe’s leading composers in orchestral jazz. The culmination so far has been the release in 2015 of ‘ReWrite of Spring’, a great, exuberantly sprawling reinterpretation of Stravinsky’s iconic ‘Le Sacre du printemps’ with Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and the soloists Dave Liebman and Marilyn Mazur.
“I am looking for situations that challenge me,” Møller said in an interview as far back as 2004, and we can safely take his word for it. For with ‘Glow of Benares’ we have a genre-crossing work whose ambition and grandeur recall some of Palle Mikkelborg’s biggest projects such as ‘The Veil of Maya’ (1973) and ‘Aura’ (1984).
‘Glow of Benares’ in other words began life 25 years ago on a floor in New Delhi where raga phrases were practiced to perfection on the shenai. And when Møller was engaged as the leader of Aarhus Jazz Orchestra in 2012, it was not least with the idea of an ambitious exchange project with Indian musicians. On earlier occasions Møller had met Abhijit Banerjee and Kala Ramnath. “I knew Abhijit way back in the 1990s, when we played a little together,” Møller remembers. “In fact there was a situation – amusing at least in retrospect – when we played as a duo at what was then the venue Ben Webster Restaurant in Copenhagen and we were fired because the owner thought there was too little beer sale in what we were doing – on an evening when the Danish national soccer team beat Romania 4-3”.
In the spring of 2015 AJO organized a workshop with Abhijit, for which Lars Møller composed ‘Indian Train Ride’. Later in the year he wrote ‘Glow of Benares’ with a point of departure in raga phrases he had asked Kala to record. The music became part of the orchestra’s project ‘Bollywood Beats and Big Band’, which with its intercultural character was launched via a number of major concerts and events, for example as part of Aarhus 2017 European Cultural Capital.
Then in January 2016 Møller went to Kolkata (Calcutta) with a group of the project’s orchestral musicians and students as well as the drummer Jonas Johansen and the guitarist Thor Madsen. The trip was part of the artistic development project. Ideas were tried out and Møller participated with some of the musicians in atmospheric concerts on the banks of the Ganges and at the Calcutta School of Music.
April and May 2016 saw the culmination, so far, of the project with concerts under the thematic heading ‘Bollywood Beats and Big Band’ in Randers, Aarhus (SPOT Festival), Viborg and Copenhagen. Some of the concerts were approached as educational communication with children. And in the end the large orchestra of 32 musicians went into the studio on 7-8 May in the Danish Broadcasting Corporation DR’s Koncerthuset, Studio 2, and recorded the music in the course of a single day. A few months later Lars Møller established the intercultural Global Jazz Explorer Institute as a united forum for his activities around among other things Indian music.
On ‘Glow of Benares’ the joint forces of the orchestral musicians and soloists unite in five ambitious, beautifully presented pieces of music. That the whole album was recorded in just seven hours may be hard to grasp; but it was preceded by able planning, rehearsals and adjustments, so the musicians and the conductor had a strong, shared sense of direction.
1 – Glow of Benares
The opening track is also the centrepiece of the album, an orchestral and soloistic interpretation of the soulful Raga Shree. Lars Møller clarifies: “This raga depicts an inner world at a human and spiritual level. In my view it is the essence of what Indian culture can express. It is down-to-earth and strikes to the heart with both overtones and undertones”.
The composition process was unconventional. In a session Møller asked Kala Ramnath to improvise over the notes of the raga in a slow 12-beat tala. He took the recordings back with him to the workroom, where he orchestrated key phrases in unison with contrapuntal ‘shadow effects’. For example the violin group helps to form the flexible melody of the raga. This is an extraordinarily atmospheric piece of music. The unison strings guide the music into a ballad-like feeling that merges with the traditional villambit ektal, a slow 12-beat rhythm. And a fantastic conclusion awaits with Ramnath’s expressive solo violin and Jonas Johansen’s free drumming over the orchestra’s ostinato.
“This is something I haven’t done before,” Lars Møller explains. “In this piece I have composed within the universe of the raga, starting with the question whether one can create a piece of orchestral music whose first part is totally based on unison lines that are displaced ever so slightly. This is my attempt to describe the quite special reddish afternoon glow and atmosphere on the banks of the Ganges, where the diversity of life unfolds: cremations, beggars, monks, children playing, clothes being washed, ritual bathing, pizza vendors and con-men”.
2 – Indian Skies
This is a new version of an older Møller theme, ‘Blue Skies In Kamchatka’, which he recorded with his group on ‘Colours’ (1997) along with the guitarist John Abercrombie. The theme was also used later on the big band album ‘New Skies’ (2001) with The Orchestra, and with the superteam Geri Allen, Buster Williams and Billy Hart on ‘Jazzpar Concerts 2003’. In the present context the music is orchestrated by the trumpeter Jesper Riis, Møller’s collaborator for many years in The Orchestra. The music has been given a reflective, airy and direct character that combines well with the other pieces. Kala Ramnath plays vocally with the themes of the strings, and Adam Rapa guarantees a lively solo on trumpet.
3 – Funky Jog
Along with the title number, ‘Funky Jog’ is one of the longest pieces on the album, with a playing time of 11:30. Here Møller develops the piece with rich moods and rhythmic layers built over traditional Indian structures. The pulse is slower, and the timbres are denser. Again Kala contributes to a unique, emotionally charged atmosphere, this time vocally, over the pulse of Abhijit’s drums. Jakob Buchanan adds soft melodic playing on the flugelhorn. In this case the distance between Indian and Nordic melancholy does not seem so great. Note how the melody of the raga is also integrated in the orchestral parts – this is beautiful orchestration.
4 – Indian Train Ride
It starts with a simple piano figure over an inciting hi-hat pulse. Throughout, Abhijit’s tablas create a lively rhythmic underlay, and Kala’s intricate violin notes are like a plant stem budding on its way up, soon accompanied by strings and resolute winds that work on the melodic material of the piece. Kala takes the first solo with beauty and vitality. A delta of sound arises between soloist and orchestra. Here we have charged harmonies and elements of both blues and raga, not least in Hans Ulrik’s expressive solo on tenor saxophone.
5 – Epilogue: Mumbai Footprints
Wayne Shorter’s famous theme ‘Footprints’ has followed Lars Møller for many years. He recorded it with his group on both ‘Cross Current’ (1995) and ‘Kaleidoscope’ (1998). Here it is elegantly suggested in a catchy epilogue. After an intense tempo is initiated which is followed by Thor Madsen’s short edgy guitar solo, strongly backed by the rhythm section and intense orchestral entries, Shorter’s melodic theme is presented in manipulated form in the final rhythmic Tihai cadence.
After listening you sit there with a particular glowing sensation in your mind, an energy and a palette of emotional possibilities. This orchestral meeting of cultures has become something quite distinctive in the river of time.
© Christian Munch-Hansen (b. 1969). Music critic, writer and teacher. Has contributed to several books on Danish jazz and in 2014 published the poetry collection Musical Dream Machine.
A personal note from the composer and conductor
Since 2012 I have had the great musical experience of working closely with Aarhus Jazz Orchestra (AJO), which has it origins in the legendary bandleader Jens Klüver’s unique life’s work, Klüver’s Big Band. In 2012 when Jens – after 34 years as bandleader – bowed out and went into retirement, I was given the unique opportunity to head up what came to be known as Aarhus Jazz Orchestra. My vision was that AJO, as one of Denmark’s major jazz institutions, would be a cultural lighthouse where the improvisation and expression of jazz in the present moment meets the score-based dramatic expression of the large ensemble format. My angle of approach has been a global perspective on how we discover what we can learn from other musical cultures; how we can cooperate and at the same time reach a deeper understanding of our own tradition and identity.
After the release of ‘ReWrite of Spring’ (Dacapo 2015) I have, as composer-in-residence with Aarhus Jazz Orchestra since 2016, been able to continue this vision with the works ‘To a New World’ (performed at the opening of the Aarhus and Paphos (Cyprus) European Cultural Capitals), and ‘Glow of Benares’.
My deepest thanks and appreciation go to: the musicians and soloists of Aarhus Jazz Orchestra and The Danish Sinfonietta for their patience and excellent musicianship; Kala Ramnath, Thor Madsen, Abhijit Banerjee and Jonas Johansen for our ongoing creative collaboration in RagaJazz; Ole Udengaard for his inspiring videos; Morten Büchert and Thor Madsen for the design and production on this recording; orchestral manager Peder Udengaard and programming manager Rasmus Bøgelund for our inspiring teamwork in recent years; Leif Lønsmann, Dorte Bennike and the staff of DR Musikariet at DR Koncerthuset, and last but not least Dacapo Records, the Danish Arts Foundation and Aarhus 2017 for their contributions to this project.
© Lars Møller, 2017