REVIEW: Arun Ghosh at Corsica Studios (2018 EFG LJF)

Arun Ghosh and band at Corsica Studios
Phone snap by Rachel Coombes
Arun Ghosh
(Corsica Studios. 23 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Rachel Coombes)

Jason Singh is a ‘genre all to himself’, acknowledges the clarinet player Arun Ghosh when introducing his band members during Friday night’s main set at the intimate club Corsica Studios in Elephant & Castle. Certainly, the beatboxer and sound artist’s opening 30-minute set wasn’t jazz as we know it, but it was wild and inventively improvised nonetheless. Equipped with a mike, a versatile set of vocal chords and a plethora of sophisticated sound effects, he led us through a sonic collage which melded wolf howls, drum’n’bass, jungle rhythms and didgeridoo-like harmonics, all the while treating his voice like a theremin, ‘moulding’ the sound with his body and hands. Joining him on bass clarinet and alto flute was the Midlands-based composer Alicia Gardener-Trejo, whose sensitively improvised wisps of melody held their own in interesting dialogue with Jason’s eclectic sound palette.

Jason reappeared on stage with the evening’s headliner Arun Ghosh, who had assembled an eight-piece ensemble for a set which had the atmosphere and energy of a (cosy) rock concert. Recently named ‘Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year’ at the 2018 Parliamentary Jazz Awards for his clarinet wizardry, Arun has carved out a successful career as a composer with his distinctive blend of traditional South Asian music, contemporary jazz idioms, punk and driving urban beats. Friday’s set consisted of new arrangements of work from his latest album But Where Are You Really From? (Camoci Records, 2017) – a question whose answer can be gathered from the complex melange of influences heard on the tracks, from prog and punk rock, to bhangra and Punjabi folk music. We heard a little of all these musical inspirations during the set, which majored on heavy driving beats and grungy riffs.

Bouncing around and headbanging on stage, Arun brought an infectious energy to the venue, yelling words of approval to his musicians and losing himself in ecstatic grooves. Joining him at the front of the stage on saxophones were the rising star Chelsea Carmichael and his long-time collaborator Idris Rahman. Both delivered some fine segments of improvisation (Idris being the master par excellence of the glissando), but some of the best moments of the set were the conversational passages between the sax duo and the clarinet, as in the bright, infectious Punjabi Girl. Sarathy Korwar on the drum kit demonstrated why he is as sought after by today’s best jazz musicians as he is by Indian classical musicians (he originally trained as a tabla player).

Marli Wren (bass guitar), Abrar Hafiz (electric guitar) and Jessica Lauren (keyboards) anchored the grooves with aplomb, although more could have been made of the keyboard – amongst the bass-heavy texture, the Hammond organ on Snakebite With Bacchus got rather lost. This tune had the dynamic force of a James Bond theme tune, and demonstrated exactly what Arun Ghosh does best: taking the listener on a psychedelic journey that begins with a very simple melodic motif, and ends with a tumultuous, soaring clarinet improvisation. In Nataraja, a work based on the myth of Lord Shiva dancing the world into creation, we were able to appreciate the lower chalumeau register of the clarinet: quiet, atmospheric pedals gave space for Arun to sing out a haunting four-pitch melody which developed gradually into a remarkable cadenza. This flourish resolved into a compelling cadence, releasing several minutes of musical tension.

Arun’s soundworld has traditionally been described as Indo-Jazz, but this seems a woefully inadequate description of the smorgasbord of musical genres that infuse his compositions. As if to reflect the scope of his influences, he closed Friday’s set with what he described as a ‘local’ song – a jazz arrangement of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. This seemed a fitting way to end a show from a musician who seamlessly fuses social, ethnic and geographical identities in an unfussy and sincere way.

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