Ravi Shankar! Just the name was enough to inspire thoughts of musical enlightenment when I was young. After George of the Beatles studied with him, anybody who aspired to know what-was-what ended up with at least one of his albums, and listened in some fashion. Understanding came gradually for those who took the time to listen closely and repeatedly; more so for those who studied the music in any depth. But the accomplished virtuosity and brilliance of the music was palpable immediately for those with ears.
The hipness-by-association factor combined with musical genius gave Pandit Shankar and Indian (Hindustani) classical music a presence and creedence in EuroAmerica that was unprecedented. It wasn't as if he and the music came here out of nowhere, of course. There were those who knew and appreciated the music before. And the advent of the long playing record in the '50s helped the musically curious get fairly long raga performances that allowed enough time to approximate what was going on in a typical performance situation.
But once Ravi was recognized simultaneously as the de facto ambassador and greatest living exponent of Indian music, the melodic and rhythmic subtleties of extended raga performance had a huge influence on virtually all musico-stylistic avenues of western music. Rock perhaps most immediately so, then over the years as the musical forms and practices became better understood, the jazz and new music areas as well.
In some ways it was a lucky happenstance for those with musical sensitivity in those days. It was lucky for all of us that Ravi Shankar was truly gifted, a musician of phenomenal imagination and ability, a sitarist destined to take his place in the pantheon of legend, one of a handful of legendary Hindustani artists who influenced and enlightened the generations then and to come, an innovator, and of course a composer/arranger of the highest rank.
And so here we stand from a vantage point of nearly 50 years on. Ravi Shankar lives, his influence and stature undiminished, and at nearly 92 years of age, performs a number of ragas in the informal environment of his living room, joined by his tabla accompanist Tanmoy Bose.
The fruits of those several days of playing and recording have become available to us, the first half of it anyway, in the new release The Living Room Sessions Part 1 (East Meets West Music 1006).
What we have is Ravi in a relaxed setting, exploring four ragas, mostly in medium tempo, finding something new to say after so many years. One of the ragas, Satyajit, is of Pandit Shankar's own invention, inspired by the feelings and thoughts experienced when he heard of the death of the great film-maker and friend Satyajit Ray. The other three ragas are traditional, two performed in lighthearted Thumri style, the other featuring a Japthal in ten beats.
We have in this moving near hour of music Ravi Shankar in a profound musical state. His playing is paired down from the extreme virtuosity of his earlier days. He instead concentrates on the subtleties of nuance and phrasing of the middle movements of a typical raga performance. He shows the sort of depth of feeling and devotion to sound perhaps only someone who has played so exceptionally well and gotten so thoroughly inside the musical forms of the Hindustani traditions can do. He transcends the mundane world. Every note has meaning.
It is a wonderful album. It is not meant to supersede all previous recordings of course, but in its own way it begins to sum up who Ravi Shankar is, what the music comes down to for him. And that is sublime indeed.