The recent Tenth Decade in Concert: Live in Escondido DVD is a remarkable testament to just how strong Ravi Shankar's playing remained at the age of 91. The concert was filmed on October 11, 2011, and he passed on December 12, 2012, at the age of 92. The legendary sitar player seems ageless in this performance though. Even though the DVD was scheduled for release long before Shankar died, Tenth Decade now stands as more than just a concert film. It is a marvelous epitaph as well.
Shankar played ragas, which are a mode of Indian classical music that can be traced back some 1500 years. Through a convergence of cultural circumstances, his music became a huge influence in both jazz and rock in the 20th century. John Coltrane was so stricken, he paid tribute to Shankar by naming his son Ravi. And it is hard to imagine any of the jam bands existing without him leading the way, decades ago.
Joep Bor of the Rotterdam Conservatory of Music defines the raga as "a tonal framework for composition and improvisation." The improvisational aspect of the music is the key to what makes it so special. The instrumentation would differ, but the basic forms of Shankar’s music provided a blueprint for what Coltrane, Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, and many others would bring to their extended works later on.
The show opens with seven musicians walking onstage to rapturous applause at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido, California. Shankar is joined by Tommy Bose (tabla), Samir Chatterjee (tabla), Ravichandra Kulur (flute, kanjira), Parimal Sadaphal (sitar), Kenji Ota (tanpura, swarmandal), and Barry Phillips (tanpura) for this performance.
The set opens with “Yaman Kalyan,” and “Khamaj.” The two ragas account for over a third of the total performance, and provide a very impressive introduction. I watched Tenth Decade just a few days after Shankar's death, and I must admit that initially I did not have the highest expectations. After all, he was 91 years old, and the sitar is a very physically demanding instrument. Those trepidations evaporated almost immediately though. Shankar’s playing is amazing, and he still seemed to be at the peak of his powers.