[19 July 2010]
Sleepless Nights is a collaborative project between Indian guitar virtuoso Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and Matt Malley, the former bassist for Counting Crows. Malley has been a practitioner of yoga since the late 1980s, and it was during a pilgrimage to India that he met Bhatt, who is best known to Western audiences for an earlier collaboration with Ry Cooder, A Meeting by the River. Bhatt is the creator of the Mohan Veena, a customized slide guitar designed to allow the instrument to take on the role of the sitar or sarod in Indian classical music while retaining the resonant sonority found in Western slide traditions. Like his contemporary Debashish Bhattacharya, another Indian slide guitar pioneer and creator of various instruments, Bhatt proposes a form of music that wishes to escape categorization based on “Eastern” and “Western” styles and traditions. The sliding notes of the guitar represent, for these musicians, an opportunity to evade the musical border police.
This is a fine goal, as long as the end result also evades the dangerous border swamps of dubious fusion. For the most part, Sleepless Nights achieves this, especially once one gets past the sprightly opening track “Rainbow in My Heart” and on to the more challenging title track, which, at nearly 13 minutes, provides plenty of drama and dynamism from all involved. The music, it should be noted, was composed/improvised during performance by Bhatt, who was accompanied on tabla and percussion by Subhen Chatterjee. Malley, who co-produced and mixed the album in his California recording studio, added bass and keyboards later, meaning that this collaboration is a product of the studio. No problem with that, of course, but Bhatt’s self-described “raw” contributions should be considered with knowledge of Malley’s “cooked” production techniques. A lot of world music emanates from non-meetings held in the sacred space and disconnected time of the recording studio, and this ultimately matters more than the typically mystical spiel accompanying this recording would have us believe.
Bhatt adds vocals to “The Eternal Wait”, though it’s his swooping slides up the neck of the Mohan Veena that steal the show. Fans of Bhattacharya’s fleet-fingered wizardry will find much to enjoy in “The Scalding Rain”. “Languid with Longing”, meanwhile, ably delivers the yearning its rather unfortunate title suggests, with some particularly beguiling tabla work from Chatterjee. Listeners might expect a little more slide guitar drama to unravel during its 14 and a half minutes. A little too languid, perhaps? Album closer “Silent Footsteps” raises the excitement level somewhat, bringing a satisfying conclusion to a generally enjoyable, if not entirely spectacular, project.