Aside from the simple act of beating out a rhythm by hitting something hollow with a stick, the other most universally common form for creating music is the blowing of air through a hollow tube. Variations of the the six holed flute, either played transversely like today's modern flutes, or by blowing down into the shaft like a recorder, have been found in cultures all over the world.
While relatively simple to play at its most basic, it takes a highly skilled player to play music of a more complicated nature because with only six holes it takes amazing breath control to push the flute's range beyond the octave it was built to play. In recent years it has been modified to include a seventh finger hole in order to facilitate a player's ability to meet the demands of more complicated music. Even though the instrument was not designed originally to play these styles of music, with this modification, and in the hands of a skilled player, its unique sound can bring a new life to familiar pieces of music.
In India this type of flute has as many names as there are dialects spoken, but it is most commonly known as either a Bansuri in the north or a Venu (an eight holed variety) in the south. No matter what name is used to refer to this flute, it's roots run deep in Hindu culture as the God Krishna is often depicted as playing the transverse version. Despite its history, the Bansuri's limited range has caused it to receive short shrift until recent times, as it was considered inadequate for performing anything but folk music. Now, especially with the addition of the seventh fingering hole, it is common to hear it used in both the classical and popular repertoire.
It's also only been in recent years that attempts have been made to cross pollinate Western and Eastern music with instruments of the other culture. While a lot of platitudes have been said about music being the universal language, the truth of the matter is that it can be as specific to a culture as a language and a belief system and can prove very difficult for someone outside that culture to reproduce.
Indian flutist Deepak Ram has, with the help of some friends, chosen to try and bridge the gulf that separates Indian and western music by recording a disc of American jazz music. Steps, released on Golden Horn Records is a diverse collection of jazz music ranging from "standards" like "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers and Hart and "Summertime" by the Gershwin brothers to the more technically advanced sounds of "Giant Steps" by John Coltrane and "All Blues" by Miles Davis.
While the flute is nowhere near as common a lead instrument in jazz as say the saxophone or trumpet, it has in recent years started to gain in popularity. Yet in all those cases the players are utilizing a concert flute that gives them the same range as any other orchestral instrument. Deepak Ram, on the other hand, is attempting to play these pieces with an instrument designed to play only one to one and half octaves. Even the inclusion of the additional finger hole only makes it easier to do what's called "overblowing" which means using increased amounts of breath to achieve a higher note. So not only does Deepak Ram have to worry about playing the songs, he also has to worry about being able to form the notes necessary to play the songs.
All things considered therefore it would be quite an accomplishment for him to be able to even get through the songs that he's chosen to play with a degree of competency. The fact that he does that, sounds like he's been playing jazz all his life, and makes it appear as if little or no effort was involved in the whole production, is a testament to his amazing musical ability and talent as a flautist.
Like all good musicians, he's not just satisfied with reproducing a song note for note in imitation of how somebody else performed it, but strives to give each of the numbers he's chosen his own interpretation. Of course, the very element that provides the challenge for performing the pieces, his instrument, goes a long way to helping him create a distinctive sound. Wooden flutes have a fullness of sound that gives them a warmth that I find too often absent when listening to the metal flutes and that brings a whole new feel to each of the songs.
On a piece like "Summertime" it helps to recreate the sense of the sultry conditions that the song is so redolent with. The heat of a lazy southern American summer afternoon, when time slows to a crawl, can be heard in the opening bars played by the flute, as can the warmth of a mother's love for her child. The song fairly vibrates with the resonance of the low notes formed in the body of the bamboo flute, and it's the echo of that carried to us listeners that conveys the depth of feeling felt by Pandit Ram as he plays the song.
I think it has something to do with the fact that when playing these types of flutes the musician has to take a more direct involvement in the creation of each individual note. It feels like more of a personal statement than it might in another instance. When you consider that jazz, by it's nature, is very much a personal message from those playing to those listening, this makes Pandit Ram's playing all the more effective.
The rest of the musicians involved take their cues from Deepak Ram, and the result is these pieces are given an elegant and eloquent reading as they ever have. The three other members of the quartet: Vic Juris on guitar, Tony Marino on bass, and Jamey Haddad on drums and percussion; have geared their performances to accompany and accent Deepak's flute. This is especially noticeable in Juris' guitar solos in that he attempts, and succeeds, to replicate the gentle persistence of the flute's approach to the music.
What I think is the most amazing thing about Steps is not the fact that Deepak Ram has taken an instrument not normally associated with jazz music and been able to play a wide variety of jazz tunes with it, but that I never once noticed that's what he was doing. From the opening track to the last song's final note, all I heard was a wonderful collection of jazz tunes being given interpretations that I wasn't familiar with. If that's not brilliance I don't know what is.