About Sanjoy Narayan

Sanjoy Narayan has a day job as Hindustan Times’ Editor-in-Chief but he’s incurably addicted to discovering new music via the Internet. His tastes run towards independent  and lesser known musicians and he likes to check out almost every genre that is served up by today’s mushrooming breed of rock and pop ensembles.

He’s been collecting music ever since his teens—beginning with vinyls and then cassette tapes. Now, he samples, tastes and downloads music off the Internet, picking up podcasts, rare bands and unsigned musicians with big potential. With the bits and bytes burgeoniong, Sanjoy is slowly running out of place to store his growing hoard of disk drives but, thankfully, not his obsessive enthusiasm to hear new music.

I’d never heard of jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington – \’Re Run Home\’ before reading about how his recently launched new album, The Epic, was creating waves not only among jazz fans but also transmitting ripples that are touching music lovers who’re otherwise not serious listeners of jazz.
Epic Proportions: The Epic is truly an epic album. I’d have never known about Kamasi Washington’s genius if I hadn’t decided to spring for it

Epic Proportions: The Epic is truly an epic album. I’d have never known about Kamasi Washington’s genius if I hadn’t decided to spring for it.

Then, I read (yes, read!) that I had actually heard him. He was the one who played tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s widely lauded new hip-hop album, Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly(the song on which Washington is credited is titled u); and on the equally acclaimed album, You’re Dead!, which is experimental multi-genre producer Flying Lotus’s new album, Washington not only played sax and keyboards but is also credited as a composer.Despite having heard both those albums several times, I’d have never known about Washington’s genius. That is, if I hadn’t decided to spring for The Epic.

Also watch: Kamasi Washington Group – Hub-Tones

The Epic is truly an epic album and I’m not being facetious when I say so. It’s a three-hour, three-CD album, with track lengths routinely reaching the 10-minute mark and a few that are nearly 15 minutes long.It’s an album that can be expected to be scarily overwhelming as well: on it, besides the 34-year-old Los Angeles jazzman’s 10-piece band (which includes two bassists, two drummers, an organ player and a pianist), there’s a full orchestra and a choir.

But it never is. It is expansive. If you expected Washington’s collaborations on Lamar’s album or on Flying Lotus – Never Catch Me’s totally unpredictable yet highly enjoyable electronica-inflected category-defying album to give you an indication of what to expect on The Epic you would be wide of the mark.The Epic is not about fusion – there’s no electronica; no hip-hop; or anything else. The Epic is a jazz album. A big jazz album.

And it takes you on a historical journey through African-American jazz through the ages but with what seems like extra long stopovers in the heady era of bebop, a style that has its roots in the 1940s and is marked by solo improvisations by talented instrumentalists.Some of the most noted bebop jazzmen include saxophonist John Coltrane, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell. Some would say that was the best era of American jazz. Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop but also of the cool era Miles Davis where even elaborate compositions and stunning improvisational virtuosity seem effortlessly laidback.

STAR DUST: Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop – a style popularised by jazzmen such as (clockwise from below, right) pianist Bud Powell, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist John Coltrane
Star dust: Washington’s music is frequently reminiscent of bebop – a style popularised by jazzmen such as (clockwise from below, right) pianist Bud Powell, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist John Coltrane.
It can be easy to focus on The Epic’s nostalgic throwback to earlier jazz styles and call Washington’s music derivative but that would be wrong.It is obvious Washington has been steeped in the influence of America’s great jazz players but his compositions (all the tracks are original) interpret those influences in a version that is singularly his: the full orchestra; the choral backing; and the big jazz band sound.

All of that blends together for the listener a wide and vibrant canvas of jazz that can be appreciated by hardcore jazz fans as well as newbies with less cultivated ears.

Few jazz albums have the ability to straddle both those ends of the listenership spectrum. The Epic certainly does.

The thrill is gone: BB King’s influence on musicians across genres and his gig-packed career cannot be overstated

The thrill is gone: BB King’s influence on musicians across genres and his gig-packed career cannot be overstated. (Photos: Getty Images)

DOWN MEMORY LANE:

You’ll likely be reading this more than a week after blues legend BB King died at 89 and would have already read the several tributes paid to him. King’s huge influence on legions of musicians across genres and his phenomenal, gig-packed career cannot be overstated.Few musicians played as many concerts as King did. In 1956, he is supposed to have played at 342 shows and even when he was well into his 70s, he routinely appeared in 200 concerts a year.

Also watch: B.B. King – Live in Dallas (1983) – Full Concert

For blues fans, King’s vast discography – his last live album was released in 2012 and the last studio recording came out in 2008 – is a treasure trove of music. Most of last week, I tried to lay my hands on some of his really early work – albums such as Singin’ the Blues (1956), Blues in My Heart (1970) and a single on a 78 rpm vinyl of the song, PLEASE LOVE ME by B B King 1953 from 1953. That last one is on YouTube and you can hear it online with the scratches and cracks and static all intact.

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My Morning Jacket’s music is often described as psychedelic rock or space rock, which might give the impression that the band from Louisville, Kentucky, is a sort of a stoner rock band. That would be wrong.

My Morning Jacket’s (or MMJ) music has integral elements that come from a wider range of genres: southern alternative country; 1970s rock; folk; progressive rock (marked by longer compositions with greater instrumentation); and even reggae. All that may seem a hodge-podge of influences, but it is not.

A whole new dawn: My Morning Jacket have gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound.

A whole new dawn: My Morning Jacket have gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound. (Photo: Danny Clinch)

Melding all this together, MMJ, which has seven studio albums to its credit, make music that is uniquely their own. At the core of that uniqueness is frontman Jim James’s vocals whose sheer range is stunning – from the lows to the mids to a falsetto, few singers in contemporary non-classical genres can probably match his virtuosity.

Besides, MMJ, as I mentioned, have a genre-straddling ability that is singularly impressive. Last fortnight, the band released its seventh studio album, The Waterfall, on which its musical diversity remains intact.

Dark star: MMJ haven’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. On The Waterfall, their musical diversity remains intact.

Dark star: MMJ haven’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. On The Waterfall, their musical diversity remains intact.

There are some trademark attributes of MMJ’s music. James’ vocals, of course, which overwhelm everything else, but also the band’s inclination to employ reverb: where the sound produced by instruments as well as the vocals are made to reverberate a little, often giving the impression of sounds emerging from inside a tunnel.

Also watch: My Morning Jacket

For me the reverb factor makes MMJ a compelling band to listen to – in particular, how the reverb sounds on James’s vocals. And I’m glad that despite their considerable evolution from the albums of their early days (2001’s At Dawn, which was their second album – I confess, I haven’t heard their first, Tennessee Fire) to the more recent ones (2011’s Circuital) they haven’t jettisoned those attributes.

They’ve gone from their somewhat raggedy space-jamming early years, followed by some partially successful experimentation, to a more refined sound – The Waterfall, incidentally, has harmonies by Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard – but their songs still retain the quality of being able to transform into live show staples.

Believe (Nobody Knows) is the first song on their new album. It’s an uplifting song with the synthesizer and guitars taking off, while James sings about agnosticism or ambiguity or perhaps both: Roll the dice/ That sails the ship/ And all the doors will open. There’s no stopping them after that.

On the next song, Compound Fracture, James sings in falsetto on a song that seems to be straining at the bit to be performed live. Indeed, if you’ve heard live recordings of the band – 2006’s Okonokos is one – you can imagine each one of the new songs on The Waterfall being done in a concert: Believe and Compound Fracture, which are tailormade for such a performance; but also, the remaining dozen, such as the acoustic and reverb-laden Like A River on which James’s falsetto is again on grand display; or the slow-starter Spring (Among the Living), especially when it gathers momentum and becomes spacey, invoking some early MMJ vibes.

Also watch: Nucleus with Allan Holdsworth – Live 1972

MMJ hasn’t exactly been prolific with their studio albums – seven in 15 or 16 years is not too many. That may be because of their predilection (like many contemporary bands) to tour a lot or because of frontman James’s side or solo projects.

James has been in a folk supergroup, Monsters of Folk (which had, beside him, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes and M Ward, the solo artist); and last year, he collaborated with others on Lost On the River: The New Basement Tapes, a rediscovery of Bob Dylan’s unpublished lyrics from 1967, which James, Elvis Costello and others put to music.

In a recent interview with the British music magazine, Uncut, James has talked about the challenges of playing with Dylan on stage and about hanging about and snorkelling with the Dead’s Bob Weir.

The good news, however, is MMJ are back with The Waterfall, which reaffirms the band’s ability to do two things at once: be a muscular rock band as well as a flexible genre-hopper. Rare in rock that.

DOWN MEMORY LANE:
If I told you I’ve been listening to Snakeships Etcetera, Phaideaux’s Corner and Splat, what would you think they are? Well, it’s jazz. Or rather, jazz fused with rock and dating back to the 1970s.

Blowin’ the blues away: The British band Nucleus’ frontman Ian Carr was a trumpeter par excellence.

Blowin’ the blues away: The British band Nucleus’ frontman Ian Carr was a trumpeter par excellence. (Photo: Getty images)

The band is UK’s Nucleus (a friend drew attention to them a few weeks back), which existed between 1969 and 1989 and their star attraction was late frontman Ian Carr, trumpeter par excellence.

Other instruments in that ensemble used to include a variety of horns, guitars, piano and organ. The album those strangely named songs are from is called UK Tour ’76. That’s 1976. Yes, ancient. But terrific.

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Five years after the release of Gil Scott-Heron’s last album, I’m New Here, and four years after his death at 62, a posthumous album, Nothing New, came out digitally earlier this month. [Read more]

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When you begin listening to Courtney Barnett’s first full-length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, the first thing that strikes you is her deadpan manner of singing. There’s a bit of boredom, a bit of aimless meandering and, delightfully, the absence of hurrying of any kind. Barnett’s songs are refreshingly laidback. But soon you realise there is something else to them: the eccentricities and quirks.

Simple lilt and quirk define Australian singer- songwriter Courtney Barnett’s music (Photo: Getty Images)

Simple lilt and quirk define Australian singer- songwriter Courtney Barnett’s music (Photo: Getty Images)

Barnett, an Australian indie singer-songwriter in her late twenties with a background of being a guitarist in grunge bands, released a few solo EPs and singles in the past few years, but this – her first full album – has catapulted her into mainstream fame: the album has received widespread critical acclaim and I’d say a lot of that is because of the lyrics of her songs. They’re deep, funny and unexpected. Indeed, each one of them appears to tell a quirky little story.

Also watch: Pedestrian at best – Courtney Barnett

Album opener Elevator Operator introduces us to Oliver Paul, 20, who, half-way on his commute to work, decides not to go. He finds himself in an elevator going to the rooftop of a building in dialogue with an aging but botoxed lady who’s envious of his youthful skin and who, presuming that he probably wants to commit suicide, urges him not to jump off the roof. He tells her she’s wrong; he’s not suicidal but “just idling insignificantly” and that all he wanted to ever be was an elevator operator.

Simple tunes: Courtney Barnett’s songs tell quirky little stories. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (above, left) is refreshingly laid-back.

Simple tunes: Courtney Barnett’s songs tell quirky little stories. Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (above, left) is refreshingly laid-back.

In Depreston, a couple goes house-hunting and sees a lovely bungalow in a cul-de-sac with a garden and a garage, much room for storage and it’s going cheap but then she sees a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam and the story gets dark.

In Dead Fox, the mundane activity of vegetable shopping – organic vs supermarket variety – spins into a stream of consciousness ramble about culling cars on city roads. And, in An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York), the mundane act of lying in bed and staring at the wall and the ceiling turns into a song about deep longing.

The instrumentation on Barnett’s songs is minimalist (guitars, bass and drums) but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to hear spunky riffs. The best example is on Small Poppies, which starts with an innocuous reflection on her lawn, before Barnett turns the seven-minute song into an extended guitar-driven blues track.

Barnett’s songs are dipped in wit and emotions and are delivered with a nonchalant wryness. After I heard Sometimes I Sit and Think, I went backwards to acquire her double EP from 2013. Titled A Sea of Split Peas, it has 12 songs and none of them disappoint.

But for me, the one that stood out on the EP is the cleverly titled Avant Gardener, a story about gardening plans that take a twisted journey into something else – unpredictability is a trait that is typical of Barnett’s songs.

Down memory lane:
My favourite Fleetwood Mac albums are the really early ones, the ones that date back to the time when the band had a line-up of Peter Green (guitar, vocals), Jeremy Spencer (vocals, slide guitar and piano), John McVie (bass guitar) and Mick Fleetwood (drums).

Brothers in blues: Fleetwood Mac were a pure blues band. The real deal of their music is the live recordings circa the late 1960s. But they're not easy to come by.

Brothers in blues: Fleetwood Mac were a pure blues band. The real deal of their music is the live recordings circa the late 1960s. But they're not easy to come by.

Green, alum of British blues band, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, is a wizard on the guitar, considered among the best in the world. They were then a pure blues band. Fleetwood Mac, their eponymous 1968 debut album is still one of my favourites as is 1969’s The Pious Bird of Good Omen, which has on it Green’s brilliant composition Black Magic Woman (What? You thought it was a Santana song? Well, it’s not!).

Also watch: Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac ~ Live at Warehouse New Orleans 1970, Part 1

But the real deal of the early Fleetwood Mac’s music is the live recordings, circa the late 1960s. But they’re not easy to come by. On a blues podcast I recently heard a 14-minute live version of their song, Underway, from a gig in 1969 and I’ve been looking for a recording of that concert ever since.

No luck yet on that but during the search I found another gem: a 1968 concert by the band, the album cover of which says Live ‘68 One Nite Only. It’s unremastered and raw but the band is at its best.

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Himanshu Suri is a name that should roll quite easily off Indian tongues but if Himanshu Suri is the name of a New York-based rapper, it could be a good idea to have a stage name that is more rap friendly.

So Suri, once part of the erstwhile hip-hop group, Das Racist, raps under the name Heems. Das Racist was a short-lived group and has to its credit a discography of three releases: two freely downloadable mixtapes (Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) and a studio album (Relax).

Himanshu Suri aka Heems is a New York-based rapper. His debut album, Eat Pray Thug (recorded in Bandra) is introspective and compelling. (Photo: Getty Images)

Himanshu Suri aka Heems is a New York-based rapper. His debut album, Eat Pray Thug (recorded in Bandra) is introspective and compelling. (Photo: Getty Images)

Humour was a big part of Das Racist, which was essentially a duo plus a backup singer, and, especially after one of their infectious early compositions, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, went viral, they began getting labelled as a joke rap band.

After Das Racist disbanded, Heems, whose talents by all accounts are multi-faceted (besides rap he’s into art, activism and has his own recording label), launched his solo career and recently released his debut album, Eat Pray Thug, which was, by the way, recorded in India – in Mumbai’s Bandra, to be precise.

Eat Pray Thug is no jokey album. It’s serious. It’s political and introspective. Issues of identity (Suri’s a second generation Indian American) appear in many of the songs, particularly on a few that describe the experience of being young and of Indian origin in New York City in the days and months after 9/11.

Suri was in school when that attack happened and its aftermath affected him profoundly and the one track that stands out is Flag Shopping.

It’s about how Indians and South Asians were targeted after the World Trade Center attacks and how they tried to demonstrate their oneness with the USA: We’re going flag shopping for American flags/They’re staring at our turbans/ They’re calling them rags/ They’re calling them towels/ They’re calling them diapers/ They’re more like crowns/ Let’s strike them like vipers… Politics recurs in some of Heems’s other tracks as well – in the one titled Patriot Act; and in the cleverly titled AlQ8a.

Wolf of Wall Street: Heems has an unconventional background for a rapper (he used to work on Wall Street). What makes Eat Pray Thug compelling are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional, evocative.

Wolf of Wall Street: Heems has an unconventional background for a rapper (he used to work on Wall Street). What makes Eat Pray Thug compelling are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional, evocative.

But Eat Pray Thug also has its lighter moments. Pop Song (Games), is a fun, danceable tune; Home and Damn, Girl are about relationships; and Sometimes, the album opener, is almost schizophrenic.

Like all good rap albums, what makes Eat Pray Thug a compelling listen are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional and evocative. Heems has a background that is unconventional for a rapper: he attended New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University and then worked on Wall Street before becoming a rap artist.

I’d heard both the Das Racist mix-tapes and their only album, Relax, which, besides a dose of Punjabi in the form of a bhangra-pop song, featured the rock band Yeasayers’ brilliant multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder, and hip-hop artists, El-P and Danny Brown.

But Heems’s Eat Pray Thug is different from those Das Racist releases. There’s the seriousness, of course, but there’s also the unmistakably deep politics that tinges much of his work. This is a rapper that deserves to be watched.

DOWN MEMORY LANE:
In 1969, when The Beatles were releasing Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It was a double album by a new band – not a format that a rock band normally chooses to debut with, but they did.

Chicago Transit Authority had to change its name to just Chicago shortly after that – when the real Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s mass transit operator, threatened to sue. But not before the debut album racked up sales of over a million.

That double album, which I consider a rock epic, is an early example of experimental rock; of a jazz-influenced big band playing tracks that stretched to seven, eight and even 14 minutes.

Summer of '69: In 1969, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It is a rock epic. (Photo: Getty Images)

Summer of '69: In 1969, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It is a rock epic. (Photo: Getty Images)

In an era when rock bands usually had four or five members, Chicago had seven, including, besides the very talented Terry Kath on guitars, Peter Cetera on bass and vocals and Robert Lamm on piano, a trumpeter and a trombonist. It was, as a band member once put it, a rock band “with horns”.

Chicago’s music lost a bit of its edge in its later years (the band, incidentally, is still in existence) but in their heady early years, their music created a huge impression on their peers, including the legendary Jimi Hendrix who is believed to have once said that Terry Kath (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot) was a better guitarist than himself. To check that out, give Chicago Transit Authority a listen.

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