Sunday, November 30, 2014

Dual CD Review: Dewa Budjana, Surya Namaskar; Tohpati, Tribal Dance

Dewa Budjana, with Jimmy Johnson & Vinnie Colaiuta
Surya Namaskar
MoonJune Records MJRO63 (2014)

Tohpati, featuring Jimmy Haslip & Chad Wackerman
Tribal Dance
MoonJune Records MJRO64 (2014)

It sounds like an intriguing musical combination. Take an Indonesian guitarist, well-versed in Western progressive and fusion music yet not forsaking the structures and sonorities of his native land; and pair him with a rhythm section comprising a bassist who has played with Allan Holdsworth and a drummer who has played with Frank Zappa. A rare concoction, right?

Not if you are Leonardo Pavkovic, whose MoonJune label specializes in prog and jazz fusion with ethnic flavors and a flair for the unusual. In 2014, he managed to release CDs from not one but two different trios of the same ethnic and musical combination described above. That’s two extraordinarily talented Indonesian guitarists fronting incredible trios.

Surya Namaskar features guitarist Dewa Budjana, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. It was recorded in Los Angeles in September 2013. Tribal Dance features Tohpati (as he’s billed) on guitar, Jimmy Haslip on bass, and Chad Wackerman on drums. It was recorded in January and October 2013. In Los Angeles (except for one track recorded in Jakarta earlier this year). For a city sitting on top of so many fault lines, it was very risky having both these dynamic trios recording in L.A. in the same year.

According to Pavkovic, “Tohpati has a very big profile in Indonesia, mostly in the pop world as a top session player, composer, and arranger for many pop stars. But Dewa Budjana is huge in Indonesia, his band, called GIGI, is one of the most famous in the country. What I am able to capture of them on MoonJune is maybe 0.5% of what they do in their careers.”

Of the two CDs, Surya Namaskar is the more progressive-sounding, very muscular and daring with the unexpected twists and turns one expects from a prog recording. Fully instrumental (except for a vocal on the largely improvised “Kalingga,” which also features Sundanese violin and harp), the album’s sound is fleshed out with important contributions from such notable musicians as Gary Husband (synthesizer on the King Crimson-esque opener, “Fifty”) and Michael Landau (guitar solos on “Campuhan Hill,” which Dewa composed after his first meeting with Holdsworth). The music is impressive and relentlessly energetic. In spite of their power and ability, Johnson and Colaiuta show great restraint; each is fully capable of taking over a tune or a session with their virtuosity (which nevertheless is on display throughout, especially for Colaiuta on “Lamboya” where he becomes a cyclone under Dewa’s restatement of the theme), but the spotlight is firmly on Dewa throughout the CD and he shines.

Tribal Dance, in contrast, is more of an East-meets-West affair, largely in the realm of jazz fusion with ethnic influences. This trio is a bit more democratic, with Haslip and Wackerman getting a few spotlights of their own; in particular, Haslip takes a nice solo on “Run” and Wackerman turns up the heat at the end of the title track, the middle of the following tune, “Red Mask,” and “Supernatural.” Several of the songs open with exotic chants or percussion before leading into the composition proper, as if Indonesia was setting the table for the American musical feast to follow. The one exception is the closer, “Midnight Rain,” which stays largely in the East (in fact, it is the only track recorded in Indonesia). Tohpati is a very fluid and nimble player who uses effects sparingly but effectively. One can detect traces of Di Meola and Scofield in his playing, but he is very much his own artist.

If these CDs are any indication of the talent that exists in Indonesia (the fourth most populous country in the world), more Western musicians and labels should be heading out that way to mine the apparently very rich veins of musical ability to be found. If they do go there, they will find that Pavkovic has had a head start.

“There is great talent in Indonesia,” he says, “but also great diversity. For example, Tohpati is ethnic Javanese, from Java, so he has certain influences, both genetic and musical, that might be different from Dewa, who is ethnic Balinese, which is a minority in Indonesia. I am also working with Dwiki Dharmawan, a well-known pianist and keyboardist; guitarist Reza Ryan from I Know You Well Miss Clara, who has more European influences, such as Terje Rypdal, Jan Akkerman, and Phil Manzanera; and two other guitarists, Agam Hamzah and Tesla Manaf Effendi. They are all very different from each other.”

As for these two recordings, it is always nice to see the trio format utilized; it is, in my opinion, the structure that requires the most awareness, instinct, and communication among the musicians. In the jazz world, some of the greatest recordings of all time have been made by trios, and these two releases add considerable luster to the form. Both guitarists are well worth watching out for.

No comments: