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  • Writer's pictureJAM

Purna Loka Ensemble



The album opens with a conversation between tabla (drum) and bass, eventually laying a foundation for solo violin that blurs the boundaries between Eastern and Western improvisatory music. Not only are the fast runs in this section raga-like, but they are also swung, bopped.

Purnaprajna Bangere is the main voice on this album. Indian classical virtuoso violinist and mathematician Purna uses this album to showcase a new musical concept or amalgam, metaraga, a systematic musical framework inspired by ideas and concepts in algebraic geometry introduced by Alexander Grothendieck. Despite its heady origins, the result is exciting, fresh, pleasing, not at all another dry experiment in heady, mathematical, concept music. Purna teaches mathematics and music at KU. Purna blends mathematical precision, Indian classical music, and improvisatory jazz in this album. And it works.

Even from the middle section of the first tune, “Syzygy,” the unmistakable influence and legacy of David Balakrishnan can be heard; Balakrishnan is a founding member of contemporary, first-of-its-kind, genre-breaking (jazz/classical/world music) Turtle Island Quartet, and plays on every song on this album. He is co-writer on half of the album’s compositions. Furthermore, Balakrishnan’s characteristic jazzy influence can be heard the album’s numerous Eastern forms and hybrid amalgams.

Tabla percussionist Amit Kavthekar’s vigorous, melodic playing blends both traditional and experimental new forms. Kavthekar has performed with many of the contemporary greats, including Zakir Hussain. He seems utterly at ease on this album, and his rhythmic iterations help set the album’s ever-changing pace.

The ensemble captures the mournful, elegiac feel of Coltrane’s iconic tune, “Alabama.” The backstory goes that in this tune Coltrane worked to capture some of the verbal cadences of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speech given on 18 Sept. 1963 to an estimated 3,300 mourners for the burial of the four black girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. The ensemble recruits and features Robert Walzel on a doleful clarinet on “Alabama,” voicing Coltrane’s part. True to the original, Walzel’s interpretation sometimes resembles praying or weeping.

“Alabama” is the most obvious and staple jazz tune on this album, although there is improvisatory influence throughout, especially when it comes to Harshbarger’s role and sound. Harshbarger has been a regular on the KC jazz scene for decades, performing with numerous other top musicians and groups, including Krystle Warren, Bobby Watson, and The People’s Liberation Big Band.

“Metaraga” is a dialogue between the continents and, in Purna’s own words, is a “music with no East nor West.” It’s easy and pleasing to both Eastern and Western ears. With Purna as the moderator, let’s hope the dialogue continues, and we get many more albums to come.

—Kevin Rabas and Ramiro Miranda

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