INDIA: Improvisations - Ravi Shankar
Updated: Jan 20
The Sitar superstar’s ‘East meets West’ album shows us that cross-cultural collaborations are an integral part of producing great music
In the 1950s, whilst Afro-Cuban jazz and Brazilian jazz (bossa nova) was finding its feet and was increasing in popularity, the notion of successfully fusing jazz music with melodies that are distinctive to other cultures anywhere outside of the Latin America was somewhat preposterous. Yet, just a few years later, Sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar was somewhat of a revolutionary, in that he successfully managed to combine jazz music with more traditional Indian melodies in an album that was arguably no more than just an experiment. Shankar’s 1962 album Improvisations proved that there was definite overlap to be found between the stylings of free jazz and Hindustani classical music despite that the scales, melodies and harmonies follow a completely different structure.
“Shankar cleverly reels in a Western audience that would be unfamiliar with Hindustani music by using jazz in the first half of the album, and once he eases them in, he guides them to the second half of the album, a series of three ragas."
The first half of Shankar’s album is immensely successful at blending the two styles. This is most apparent in my favourite song on the album, Fire Night, in which American saxophonist and flautist Bud Shank, who is perhaps best known for his flute solo on the song California Dreamin by The Mamas & The Papas recorded three years later, masterfully plays the flute which combines perfectly with the accompanying sound of the beating of the tabla. The chaos of free jazz, popularised by the likes of John Coltrane, can be heard in Karnataki which very clearly lacks a traditional beginning, middle and end; instead demonstrating the individual musical prowess of those playing the track. The way in which the ensemble of Los Angeles-based jazz musicians complimented the Indian musicians who played the tamboura, tabla and sitar paints quite a picture for its listener. Shankar’s album allows me to imagine a collective epiphanic moment that might have happened when this group realised that they were sharing almost a telepathy between them, in which they were synchronising the sounds that tell the story of two vastly different cultures.
Whilst Shankar is famed for his integration with Western music, it is also worth pointing out that this album is not simply a merging of musical traditions. Rather, Shankar cleverly reels in a Western audience that would be unfamiliar with Hindustani music by using jazz in the first half of the album, and once he eases them in, he guides them to the second half of the album, a series of three ragas; a sound that many Westerners would rarely chose to seek out themselves in its purest form. A raga is a central component of Indian music, that emphasises the importance of creating an emotion in its listeners, yet the concept has no direct translation or parallel that would be familiar within Western music. Shankar’s ability to seamlessly introduce his Western audience to this age-old tradition is impressive and should be commended, as although it might not be what they are used to, it becomes more palatable to listen to and understand once they have consumed the first half of the album.
Shankar is clearly a pioneer in his field and deserves all the plaudits he can get. Whilst, this album is a good starting place to get to grips with Shankar’s work, it is worth noting that the Sitar extraordinaire was also influential in other genres of Western music away from Jazz. Shankar taught Beatles star George Harrison how to play the Sitar and this helped popularise the use of Indian instruments in pop music just a few years after the release of Improvisations. Thanks to Shankar, Indian influences can be heard on the iconic albums Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and have continued to inspire Western musicians to introduce Indian melodies into their music for many decades since. Improvisation has a somewhat spellbinding, almost ceremonial quality to it and whether you chose to listen this album to hear how a raga can colour your mind in its own unique way or simply because you are curious to hear how seemingly conflicting musical styles can blend so well, checking this album out will be worth your while.