Natraj,
The Goat Also Gallops
(Dorian, 1994)

There are only eight tracks on this almost one-hour album by Natraj, an ensemble known for its unique blend of musical styles derived from the Indian, West-African and Western jazz traditions. For those who wonder about the meaning of the group's name. Natraj or the "God of Dance" is one of the many incarnations of the Hindu deity Shiva, the creator and destroyer, and serves as an expression of the human condition in its aspects of creation, preservation and, ulimately, destruction.

Led by saxophonist Phil Scarff, who is also the producer and chief composer, Natraj brings together a number of highly qualified musicians. The fact that Natraj counts two percussionists among its five-man make-up is already an indication that many of the performed compositions are carried by complex rhythms. Both Jerry Leake and Simone Haggiag are experts on Asian, African and Latin American percussion traditions, not only as performers but also as ethnomusicologists. Violinist Mat Maneri has built up a reputation as an idiosyncratic player of jazz, avant-garde and microtonal music, while bassist Michael Rivard is recognized as a versatile musician who has also studied West-African drums.

The Goat Also Gallops was released by Dorian in 1994, but the recording dates back to 1990. A review of this innovative project is therefore long overdue. The opening track, "Ave De Se," is a 10-minute percussion number. The dry beat of the tabla lends itself almost naturally for the interpretation of this Agbekor composition from the West-African country of Ghana. Originally conceived as wartime percussion music, it has been transformed into a style used at festivals and funerals. The drums are complemented by Scarff's jazzy saxophone. Gradually the composition is transformed into a sophisticated jazz number that nevertheless retains the original African beat. It concludes by returning again to the intricate polyrhythmic drumming of Ghana.

Apart from West-African music, which he has studied at its sources, Scarff is also versed in Indian musical traditions. In Poona (or Pune) he has learned to play two types of Indian double-reed instruments: the sundri and the shehnai. His Indian experience, and in particular his visit to the holy city of Benares (Varanasi), has served as the inspiration for "East of Benares -- Mother Ganga." The intro to this track is almost visual: tinkling bells and the soft undercurrent of a sitar evoke the image of a misty sunrise over the banks of the river Ganges. Here again, the thoroughly Indian sound gradually evolves into a more syncretic performance, in this case dominated by violinist Maneri and subtly augmented by bassis Rivard and Scarff on the saxophone.

The first two compositions take up more than a third of the album and are followed by a short Scarff composition based on Indian Raga. It is a temperamental duet for saxophone and violin, with tabla and bass support. The rhythm composition is from Anupam Rai, a tabla master from the North-Indian city of Allahabad. The piece starts curiously with Leake vocalizing the tabla syllables on which the composition is founded. The following number, "Dha Ra Dha Tin Na," is also Indian in origin. It is structured into three sections, in each of which the same simple four-note theme is elaborated on differently, while the speed gradually increases. The title is a reference to -- again -- the sounded-out syllables of the rhythmic pattern.

After Africa and India, we move on to the Balkan region with an adaptation of a Bulgarian wedding song. Originally composed as a vocal duet, Natraj has turned it into a number for soprano saxophone and violin. Actually, this one-minute track is more of an intermezzo before returning to another composition taken from Africa. The title, "For You, Gahu," refers to a musical style of the Ewe people, a nation living in Ghana and Togo. It is a dance number in which both rhythm section and bass set the cadence. The listener will be amazed by the virtuosity of the bassist, whose dexterity is pushed to the limit in this crisp and speedy piece. Leake and Haggiag get also ample opportunity to show off their command of Latin American percussion, with a performance that would go down very well in a Rio carnival street parade.

No starker contrast can be imagined than between the previous upbeat African dance number and the Ornette Coleman classic "Lonely Woman." The subdued introduction to this long (10 minute) composition is of a magnificent melancholy, which Scarff then turns into a beautiful lament with a high-pitched saxophone performance. Unfortunately it disintegrates only too soon into cacophonous experimental jazz. In the end it is brought full circle and capped off with a conclusion that is equally plaintive as the beginning. If it were not for the dissonant jazz improvisation this would have easily become my favorite number.

The album's title number is reserved for last. The quirky title is a reference to the small herd of goats assembled in front of the Muktangan Institute in Poona, where Scarff went to study Indian music in 1988. In this closing number all performers are given a final chance to exhibit their virtuosity as instrumentalists and highly original interpreters of a variety of musical styles. Natraj's unique mix of refined jazz and subtle adaptations of ethnic music will appeal to both jazz buffs and admirers of world music.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 11 January 2003