It's always a pleasure to witness an instrumental virtuoso in action, no matter the instrument or style of music. Renowned sitar player Anoushka Shankar gave the audience at Centennial Hall a treat last Friday night, seamlessly combining classical Indian music with contemporary Western sounds. Tying it all together were Shankar's amazing abilities on the traditional long-necked, 19-stringed instrument.
The 26-year-old Shankar has been playing the sitar since she was 8, and as the daughter of the legendary Ravi Shankar, she carries on a tradition of hundreds of years. But she is also deeply connected to contemporary music such as electronica, pop and jazz improvisation, as is demonstrated on her fourth solo album, Rise (2005), and last year's Breathing Under Water, a collaboration with percussionist and composer Karsh Kale.
There were no electronics on stage for Shankar's two 45-minute sets, which focused instead on groove-oriented fusions of pop and Indian music, including several cuts from Rise. For this concert, the group dubbed the Anoushka Shankar Project consisted of pianist Leo Dombecki and trap drummer Jesse Charnow, in addition to Sanjeev Shankar (no relation) on the shahnai (a haunting wind instrument) and Tanmoy Bose on tabla and vocals. Tucson musician Stefin Gordon sat in on the tanpura, an unfretted four-string drone instrument.
The strikingly beautiful Shankar, who often displayed a dazzling smile, subtly directed the other musicians while executing blazingly fast runs on the sitar. Often bending notes like a blues Dobro player, Shankar showed a style that was markedly funky while staying mostly faithful to the 12- and 7-beat cycles that characterize Indian music. A pleasant surprise was that Charnow's drumming--with its hip-hop-influenced emphasis on high-hat and snare patterns--meshed so well, at least when it wasn't drowning out the other instruments, especially Bose's tabla.
Dombecki's piano-playing often harmonized with or repeated phrases introduced by Shankar, sometimes resulting in a rich symmetry, and occasionally seeming like a redundant afterthought, such as on the opening "Prayer in Passing." His playing was indispensable, though, on the flamenco-flavored "Solea," which Shankar originally wrote with Spanish pianist Pedro Ricardo Miño.
Another highlight saw Sanjeev Shankar and Dombecki trading solos with Shankar on a piece originally composed by Ravi Shankar as a duet for her and legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.