Boston-based jazz group Natraj delivered a memorable concert with Carnatic vocalist Deepti Navaratna on Friday, April 20 at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham. With its dim lighting and seating close to the stage, the Arts Center provided an intimate ambience, allowing the Friday night concert to set the tone for a relaxing weekend.
Known for creating music that combines jazz with traditional music from India and West Africa, Natraj holds a generous history of partnering with performers from diverse backgrounds. This concert was no exception, and it represented the first time that the band has collaborated with a Carnatic vocalist. Deepti Navaratna is an award-winning Carnatic musician who is considered a rising star in New England’s Indian classical music realm.
In a concert that lasted for about two hours, Natraj performed distinctive pieces of music from the Carnatic and Hindustani repertoire as well as some West African-inspired compositions. Taking the stage, Natraj began with an original composition by Phil Scarff called “For You, Gahu”. With its fast-paced rhythms and West African sounds, the drums took center stage in this piece which served as a pleasing introduction to the band’s eclectic style. The audience was then introduced to Navaratna’s mellifluous voice in “Ganga Dhara” which included fine interplay between her vocals and the saxophone as well as the tabla.
“Jage Jage Jage Sabalogo Va”, a composition by Pandit Shreeram Devasthali, was one of the highlights, both for its deeply meditative feel as well as saxophonist Phil Scarff’s masterful and elegant rendition. The saxophone was indeed the star of this piece, beginning slowly, bringing to mind the sounds of hallowed Indian temples, with the other instruments deftly joining in and picking up the pace toward the end. The group was rewarded by enthusiastic applause from the audience after this truly inspiring piece. The presentations of the Carnatic compositions in the first set were noted for Navaratna’s use of kalpana swaras instead of lyrics. One suspects that the Carnatic music lovers in the audience would have been left wanting to hear more of her voice.
Natraj complemented Navaratna’s voice exceptionally in Lalgudi Jayaraman’s “Sri Jagadeeswari” and in Purandara Dasa’s “Tamburi Meetidava”, an audience favorite. The presentation of Ornette Coleman’s jazz classic “Lonely Woman” took the group into uncharted territory, including Navaratna’s “raga scat singing” which may have left the average concertgoer somewhat baffled. Indeed, the collaboration seemed to work best when the instruments played supporting roles and her voice was more audible.
With John Funkhouser on string bass, Jerry Leake on tabla and multipercussion and Bertram Lehmann on drums and percussion, the Natraj team has exemplified the best in what could be called Indo-Jazz Fusion music. If jazz is about inventiveness, then Natraj provided an ideal platform for Navaratna who has said that she enjoys experimenting with different genres of music. As one comes away from the concert, the foremost impression is that of having witnessed the performance of artists who are passionate and devoted to their craft and love of music.