#MutualNight: Diwali and Indian Jazz

(Quick reminder: if you’re curious why I’m writing about music on a Mormon blog, this post will summarize what #MutualNight posts are.)

Subharnab Majumdar, The Rangoli of Lights. CC BY 2.0

Diwali, India’s most important holiday, starts today. Most of my experience with Diwali has been at the Art Institute of Chicago, which has an annual Diwali Family Festival.[fn1] I’m far from an expert, but the outline of the holiday is this: Diwali, the festival of lights, marks the triumph of good over evil, and of light over dark.

With the upcoming holiday, I thought I’d take a quick listen to some Indian music. Now, if you’re anything like me, your exposure to Indian music has come through two routes: Bollywood and the Indian classical music that found its way into the Beatles’ music.

Unsurprisingly from a country of well over 1 billion people, that’s not the extent of Indian music.

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition, “Agrima”

A couple days ago,[fn2] Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition released “Agrima.” I’ve been looking forward to this album for about seven months, since I saw them perform at the Harris Theater. The performance was electrifying; the band is Mahanthappa on alto sax and electronics, Rez Abbasi on electric guitar, and Dan Weiss on tabla and drums.

The band plays jazz, influenced strongly by various Indian and Pakistani musical styles. And here, I’m at a little bit of a loss to describe exactly how Indian this album is, but I hear the Indian influences. Maranthappa’s saxophone tone hints at the pungi, with a clean, sharp tone, sometimes subsumed in echoes and other electronic effects. Abbasi’s guitar plays off of Mahanthapp’s music, as sometimes they play together, but more often they take turns. And Weiss spends parts of some songs on the ground, playing tabla, but also has a drum set in front of him; in their performance, he’d rise up into the drum set.

The trio doesn’t have a bass, but it doesn’t miss it. Abbasi uses the full range of his instrument, while Mahanthappa plays pedal tones under Abbasi’s solos, pedal tones that suggest a sitar without being a sitar.

And have I mentioned how electrifying this album is? Mahanthappa is certainly one of the most virtuosic saxophone players playing today. He goes from droning long tones to Coltrane-esque sheets of sound and back. On this album, he’s clearly playing jazz, but he’s clearly incorporate language from outside of jazz. Weiss’s tabla playing, and his transitions from tabla to drums, are outstanding. Abbasi’s use of the full range of the guitar is astounding. And the electronic effects, while never front and center, create a dreamlike feel that, as much as Mahanthappa’s pedal tones and Abbasi’s low notes, suggests the absent sitar.

I can listen to this album in a couple different ways. It’s the kind of thing that I can play in the background, letting it wash over me. But it also warrants a close, attentive listen. Abbasi’s guitar’s tone and power wouldn’t feel out of place in any guitar hero band, while Mahanthappa’s saxophone playing stands apart from basically anybody else I’ve heard (it makes me think of Phil Woods and Charlie Parker, but its not derivative of either of them). And man, that tabla playing.[fn3]

Rez Abbasi, “Unfiltered Universe”

The three members of the Indo-Pak Coalition also play on Rez Abbasi’s new album, “Unfiltered Universe.” His Invocation quintet is rounded out by Vijay Iyer(!) on piano and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass, with guest cellist Elizabeth Mikhael.

Two quick asides: first, the album doesn’t come out until next month, but it’s available for listening on Spotify now. Two, Vijay Iyer is one of the most stunning contemporary pianists playing. Whatever superlatives I applied to the musicians of the Indo-Pak Coalition apply equally to him. And, while I’m not familiar with Weidenmueller’s playing outside of this album, it’s excellent here.

“Unfiltered Universe” is doing slightly different work than “Agrima.” Where “Agrima” is broadly Indian influences, with his album, Abbasi is specifically invoking South Indian Carnatic music.

Confession: I don’t personally know what that means. On the other hand, I can hear the difference between New Orleans jazz, New York jazz, Chicago jazz, and West Coast jazz, and differentiating Delta blues and Chicago blues is no problem at all.

That said, if this has Carnatic influences, I like Carnatic. Abbasi’s doing interesting work here: although he’s specifically invoking a regional music, he’s not using the regional instruments. He sticks purely with guitar, and on this album, Weiss sticks with drums, not pulling out the tablas he’s so accomplished on. Iyer’s piano runs waterfall over each other, while Mahanthappa shows the same proficiency and energy here as he does on his own album.

The guitar is as punchy as anything I’ve listened to; again, the South Indian and the jazz notwithstanding, you could listen to this easily as a rock album.

I don’t want to play the albums against each other—I sincerely love both of them. They are both deeply rooted in multiple traditions, even if I’m only really familiar with one of the traditions. They’re both also fundamentally contemporary, doing things that haven’t been done before. Every musician plays his or her heart out; interestingly, the “Agrima” album lives up to the live performance, and I definitely want to see Abbasi’s band perform live.

These albums are great, and bear repeated listening. (I listened to both this morning biking to and from a dentist appointment. Which is stupid—you shouldn’t listen to music while biking—but I really, really wanted to listen to them again.) This Diwali season, I strongly recommend either (or better, both!) to get into the spirit of the Indian subcontinent, and celebrate the victory of good over evil.

[fn1] Which, btw, if you’re in Chicago, you should definitely go. It’s a wonderful introduction to the art, music, dance, and stories of India. Also, it’s free, even if you’re not a member of the Art Institute.

[fn2] At least I think it was a couple days ago—I preordered the album two or three weeks ago, and got my download email Tuesday.

[fn3] Also, the mp3 version of the album is only $2.50, so there’s really not a lot of reason not to give it a try.


  1. I have attended 2 Diwali events. The dancers at both events were outstanding. I love the music they used. Thanks for other music suggestions.

  2. Namaste, Sam, and thank you. My family and I will be going to our local mandir to celebrate the New Year tomorrow. In addition to the music and dancing, may I just say, the food is well worth looking into also.

    Here’s to seeing the light in us all. Happy Diwali!

  3. Absolutely true, Leona. Years ago, we lived next door to an Indian family, and they constantly shared homemade food with us, and it was always stunningly good. And on Devon in Chicago, there’s a stretch of Indian and Pakistani restaurants that are among the best I’ve ever eaten at; sadly, since we’ve moved further downtown, they’re not as easily accessible as they used to be (though maybe Diwali is an excuse to get back up there!).

  4. Thanks for this, Sam. Marvelous music all around! In this vein, I also love Vijay Iyer’s Tirtha album.

  5. Thanks for the recommendations!!
    Normally I shy away from guitar-driven jazz, as I find it a little too noodly for my tastes.
    But the Rez Abassi album is SOLID! I’ve been listening non-stop on Spotify since I read this post.
    Very powerful, yet accessible, avant-garde stuff. The album is a must-buy for me.

    On the subject of Indo-Pak / Hindustani-influenced jazz, I am really excited for the upcoming release from Sameer Gupta & his friends from the Brooklyn Raga Massive, “A Circle Has No Beginning”. Should be out early next year.

    Also, the Indian community here at the company where I work held a Diwali celebration at lunchtime today. They invited all of their non-Indian friends, and I was lucky enough to get an invite. The food was great & the friendship was even better. I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to work with people from nearly every part of the world. It’s done so much to enrich my life & show God’s hand in our collective existence.

    But seriously, this Rez Abbasi album is straight-up 13th Article of Faith material.
    Sooooooo goood!!!

  6. I’m so glad you liked it, Nate! It really is a spectacular album.

  7. Nate’s comment was right on; definitely 13th Article of Faith quality. Thank you, I immediately went to YouTube to listen to their music, superb! I live in northern Minnesota my chance of participating in anything like this is very limited unless I can discover it in Winnipeg Manitoba. Again thank you for sharing this treasure. Love your blog.

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