Western musicians, particularly from pop/rock and jazz have often taken inspiration (culturally appropriated?) from the music and rhythms of South East Asia, especially India. One of the great jazz icons, Alice Coltrane, went so far as to totally immerse herself in Indian philosophy and spirituality. Coltrane established the Vedantic Centre where she and other members would perform bhajans and kirtans that in turn would inspire Coltrane’s incredible devotional jazz recordings of the 1980s.
It was Coltrane’s music that came to mind when I first listened to Of Agency and Abstraction, the outstanding debut album from Rajna Swaminathan, destined, surely, to become one of the leading lights of the next wave of Indian/jazz fusion musicians.
Born in Maryland, but with Indian heritage, Rajna Swaminathan is a multi-talented composer, vocalist and percussionist. On her debut album, Swaminathan plays the mridangam, an ancient Indian barrel-shaped drum and performs vocal duties. Introduced to the mridangam by her father P.K. Swaminathan, Rajna then studied under the master mridangam player Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and quickly established her reputation as one of the few female percussionists performing Carnatic music, a form of Indian classical music.
Moving to New York in 2011, Swaminathan quickly immersed herself in the city’s jazz scene where she met jazz composer-pianist Vijay Iyer who would become her mentor and forming RAJAS, a floating ensemble of musicians and improvisers from the Indian classical and creative music scenes, some of whom play on Of Agency and Abstraction.
Produced by Vijay Iyer and featuring Rajna’s sister Anjna Swaminathan on violin, María Grand on tenor saxophone, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Stephan Crump on bass and guest artists Amir ElSaffar on trumpet and Ganavya providing vocals, Of Agency and Abstraction is a deeply personal album, reflecting and ruminating as it does on the concepts of agency and abstraction that for Rajna have shared “associations with one of the most troubling concepts of music and of the human condition: freedom”. However, it is not freedom, but playful and prayerful meditations that Swaminathan seeks in her music.
From the first note of album opener, “Offering”, it is clear Swaminathan will meet her expectations. A beautiful dialogue between Okazaki’s guitar and Swaminathan’s mridangam develops. Based on the raga Gavati, Offering gives way to gentler mediations on the tracks “Peregrination” and “Vigil” with Anjna Swaminathan’s violin and Stephen Crump’s bass at the fore creating blissful rhythms and interplay.
The album is centred on a four-piece suite of compositions that gives full reign to Rajna and RAJAS, allowing the ensemble full expression on the tracks “Departures”, “Ripple Effect”, “Communitas”, and “Retrograde”. Here the ensemble is accompanied by the extraordinary voice of Ganavya performing excerpts from centuries-old Marathi poems set against the percussive, rhythmic backing of the musicians which does offer a spiritual, meditative moment for the listener to pause and fully take in this beautiful music.
The second half of the album is awash with improvised, textured songs. “Chasing the Gradient” has hushed vocals and an almost flamenco type vibe, while “Rush” starts with an ominous tone before bursting into a playful conversation between the tenor sax, guitar and mridangam. “Vagabonds” reintroduces Ganavya (I could listen to her voice all day) whilst the final track, “Yathi”, opens with the deep, husky tone of Rajna’s own voice, a perfect accompaniment to the sax, mridangam and violin instruments, before unexpectedly, and rather wonderfully, merging with Ganavya’s voice. The album closes with Ganavya singing unaccompanied and unadorned, pure and life-affirming, just like Of Agency and Abstraction, it really is a thing of beauty.
It’s so exciting when you hear a vital new voice emerge so brilliantly you wonder where on earth they can go next. I’m looking forward to following Rajna’s journey, in the meantime, I’ll just sit and listen to Of Agency and Abstraction and be absorbed by its magnificence while I contemplate my place in this rather strange world.