Amirtha Kidambi (voice, harmonium) led her group Elder Ones, a quartet including Matt Nelson (soprano saxophone), Brandon Lopez (bass), and Max Jaffe (drums), last night at Roulette. The music was a fantastic fusion of South Asian music and avant garde jazz among other musical influences that when brought together achieved a well-proportioned and sophisticated dynamism. Kidambi’s vision for the project began with the hiring of musicians who also brought their own identities and backgrounds to the music who together captivated the audience at Roulette.
The night’s music was organized into four movements named for the Yugas (cosmic time) described in Hindu texts. But even if Kidambi had not described this to the audience in her preamble, one would still have gotten the sense of a story being told through four distinct phases with an emotionally-engaging narrative. The opening section, “Satya-Yuga,” built from a mellow beginning and tastefully introduced the audience to each of the musicians allowing for a good balance between individual and group sound. The ensemble shook whatever nervous jitters they had through the first movement and in the second, “Treta-Yuga,” connected and integrated themselves in deeper and deeper ways. Beginning with a bass solo to which drums and voice were added swiftly, the music began to exhibit some structurally fascinating concepts. Jaffe propelled the movement for significant sections while Lopez adeptly improvised around the latter’s irregular beats and tempos. The rhythms were fascinating and challenging. On the other side, voice forged its own undulating path with saxophone spinning dextrous circles around it. In their group sound, the ensemble breathed, pulsed, and oscillated like a living organism with the individual players exhibiting their autonomy at times, but never establishing an identity separated from the unity of the whole.
The third movement, “Dvapara-Yuga,” opened with a brief vocal solo with bass, drums, and finally saxophone joining. Again, at times, the group moved along with the two duos working within it, expanding and retracting, while building towards a narrative climax. Then the final part, “Kali-Yuga,” returned at times to a mellower feel, though tinctured with jagged saxophone and vocal lines over complex rhythms. Nelson exhibited some of his more inventive playing there.
This was an interesting environment for Kidambi, Nelson, Lopez, and Jaffe to each exhibit their talents while working towards a group sound. Nelson showed a fine-tuned aesthetic sensitivity in the way that he reacted, most prominently to voice, all while offering his own pulsating crescendos and decrescendos in just the right way as to allow the greater whole to continue to evolve. Lopez’ most remarkable moments came in his solos or during his duets with Jaffe, where he made crisp, well-articulated statements. Jaffe displayed his command of some very difficult rhythms from start to finish, and a keen awareness of the movement and rhythms being contributed by the other players. Through all of this, Kidambi led the way, sometimes offering only subtle cues, as she spun her poetics. The music was emotionally rich and Kidambi was at the forefront of that, using her voice to express a wide-range of images and ideas. When she introduced the piece, Kidambi noted that one section had been based on music that had once been titled, “For Eric Garner” and suggested that the other sections could well have born names of other recent victims of violence in the U.S. But then she encouraged people to hear the music in their own way, too, and to draw their own experience from it. Indeed, Elder Ones’ performance at Roulette last night proved how relevant experimental music can be while drawing upon tradition, pushing the boundaries, and being open enough to allow for a universal, yet diverse experience.