Ever since the likes of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry came upon the tantric mantras of India and the harmonic and rhythmic forms of Indian classical music, the field of improvisatory music that became known as spiritual jazz has sought to merge a particularly African American expression with an ancient lineage to create its own musical philosophy – one resolutely apart from the white, Eurocentric tradition.
The sound is a touchstone of Ed Cawthorne’s decade on the London jazz circuit as multi-instrumentalist and producer Tenderlonious. His groups Ruby Rushton and the 22archestra are known for their languid, funk-inflected take on the works of Lateef and Coltrane. Like these forebears, he now follows that music to its source, with Ragas from Lahore.
Recorded in one day in Lahore in April 2019 with the instrumental quartet Jaubi, the album seamlessly merges the improvisatory jazz tradition with the free-flowing formalism of Indian classical ragas. Cawthorne is at his most effective when he plays the flute – deftly straddling the styles of jazz flautists such as Lateef with Indian classical players such as Ronu Majumdar. On Azadi, we hear his percussive breath scatting through the flute to mirror the polyrhythmic ektaal beat cycle of tabla player Kashif Ali Dani, while his longer, more fluid notes float atop the bright chord voicings of guitarist and vocalist Ali Riaz Baqar.
On the two versions of the raga Kirwani, meanwhile, Cawthorne switches between soprano sax and flute, meandering through the classical scale of the title while a droning synth backing from Polish jazz musician Marek Pędziwiatr puts an electronic spin on the usual accompaniment of the stringed veena. It is these subtle touches – incorporating the non-traditional instruments of synthesisers and saxophones – that make this record a fresh, collaborative endeavour, not appropriative pastiche.
With each composition recorded in one take without sheet music, Ragas from Lahore is a deeply engaging and intuitive introduction to the Indian classical form, as well as a testament to its malleable potential for reinterpretations. The closing number, Impressions – the title a reminder of the raga-influenced Coltrane album of the same name – sees seventh-generation sarangi player Zohaib Hassan Khan come to the fore. As Cawthorne’s flute weaves between his expressive bowing, we feel the essence of spiritual jazz: traditions in dialogue, gesturing towards something greater than themselves.
Also out this month
Producer Jitwam curates a collaborative charity compilation, Chalo, spanning the breadth of music created by the south Asian diaspora. There is everything from British producer Ahadadream’s take on South African gqom, Sarathy Korwar’s spoken-word protest song Turner on the 20, and composer VS Narasimhan’s beautifully expressive strings on Mokshamu. French-Algerian singer Nesrine releases her self-titled second LP, merging jazz-inflected cello with her smoky, oaken vocals. There is a delightful find in the Kraftwerk-meets-Talking Heads synthpop of 80s Turkish group Café Türk and their self-titled retrospective compilation. The unearthed video for single Haydi Yallah is a kitsch masterwork.