When I used to work in theatre, in another life, in a land far, far away known as Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the majority of the work I was involved with was improvisation. As anyone who has done any improvisational work on the stage knows there is an incredibly fine line between coming up with something brilliant and stinking the house out.
Their are a few secrets to good improvisation in theatre; decide on a beginning, middle and end for each scene, know what information the audience needs to be told for the story to make sense, and trust your instincts. The first two are easily solved through rehearsal and coming up with a basic outline for each scene that tells each actor what they need to do in order for the scene to work. It's that last one that's problematic, because it's not something that can be taught.
Being able to make a decision and know that it's the right thing to do in the moment without having to think over the ramifications is the hardest thing an actor will ever have to do on stage. But if they forget a line, or a piece of scenery fails to do what it's supposed to do, they must be able to find a way through without anything untoward appearing to happen. When the work you do is only loosely formulated like improvisation that instinct is sometimes all that stands between you and disaster.
It's hard not to draw comparisons between the work I used to do as an actor and some of the different modern musicians that I've been reviewing recently. While some have been popular musicians, the majority have worked in Jazz. Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana are a group who fall into the latter category, but at the same time bring a unique aesthetic that sets them apart from a great deal of other Jazz combos. While the standard Jazz trio will either feature a horn, a keyboard, or a guitar in the front, with percussion and bass supplying backing, Trio Tarana are: Ravish Momin on either drum kit, percussion, cajon, or talking drum; Sam Bardfeld Violin; and Brandon Terzic playing the Middle Eastern instrument the Oud. (A mix of lute, guitar, and mandolin)
With Ravish being born in India and having lived in various places all over the world, Sam Bardfeld playing with everyone from Bruce Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions Band" to Anthony Braxton, and Brandon Terzic drawing upon Middle Eastern playing styles, you know the Jazz they play is not going to be what you are accustomed to hearing. The first clue comes in the title of their soon to be released (Sept. 21st/07) CD. Miren (A Longing) contains only a partial translation of the Japanese word (miren) in the title. The full meaning, "a deeply-felt sadness resulting from a longing for closure on something form the past" would have problems fitting on a standard cover let alone a CD's spine, but also gives a better idea of the music's emotional and intellectual depth.
Like all good improvisers, they start with a composition (all by Momin except track 3, "Ragalaya", a traditional South Indian composition he arranged) that acts as their outline. What I called the basic information of the script that the audience needs to know to be able to follow along would be the underpinning theme that is expressed by the composition. Either one of Sam or Brandon will begin the theme with Momin providing the percussive underpinning required, and then the fun begins as the two front men trade solos back and forth until it becomes a seamless blend of the two sounds and the aspects of the theme they have chosen to explore.
This is where their experience shines through, because not once do they let any of the pieces descend into chaos. They are very careful to keep within a framework that they seem to understand; the line they know not to cross that keeps the music on the right side of self indulgent. The object of improvisation is to elaborate on a theme, not to lose track of it completely so no one but you can understand what's going on. Like any art form, music is about communication, and the last thing you want to communicate is I'm a self-indulgent wanker.
That doesn't mean you're not allowed to have any fun. All one needs to do is listen to the fifth track "What Reward?" on Miren (A Longing) to understand that. It leads off with an Oud solo that sounds like it was taken right from Jimi Hendrix's fret board. The resulting creation ends up sounding like a mid-eastern/Blues number like nothing I've ever heard before. It was quite amazing and not since the Kronos Quartet performed "Purple Haze" have I heard anything to equal this for sheer energy and exhilaration.
Bringing together performers of different musical traditions; culturally and professionally, seems to have become something of a fad lately. While there are people who make it a life's study to learn as much about other music as they can, (Ry Cooder, Bob Brozman, and Harry Manx spring to mind). Too many of the recent efforts are like what bands in the sixties did to sound exotic by throwing a sitar into the mix without taking the time to learn anything about the instrument's tradition and culture.
Ravish Momin's Trio Tarana is not one of those cheap exploitations of sound that passes for "world" music being sold in New Age stores. Miren (A Longing) is an example of what happens when three dedicated and experienced musicians of like mind come together to make music. Each composition has an intent that is adhered to as a framework. Within this framework, they each give free expression to whatever the intent has inspired in them making this one of the most interesting and exciting pieces of improvisational music I have heard in a long time.
If you are interested in having your horizons and brain stretched simultaneously, keep an eye out for Miren (A Longing) being released this September 21st.