Keepers of the Flame
Performances by Jason Moran and the Sachal Ensemble deal with the power of cultural traditions.
By Loren Schoenberg
Tradition has been defined as “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” Stanford Live is presenting two ensembles, Jason Moran and his Big Bandwagon and the Sachal Ensemble, that deal with their specific cultural traditions in ways that on the surface sound quite different but that actually share commons goals at their root.
Popular music has always been derived from its function as music to dance to. The social rituals that surround the dance were vital before the explosion of technology and social media began to render them less important, if not altogether moot. Similarly, before the advent of recordings, and for many decades after, audiences preferred to dance to live musicians—imagine that! And as the music became more sophisticated, another audience developed who preferred to listen to the music rather than dance, and venues began to cater to their desire.
Duke Ellington had a particularly felicitous phrase to represent music that made your toes tap; he called it “encouraging the terpsichorean urge.” And no matter how seemingly complex or fascinating or deep the music becomes, if part of you isn’t vibrating in rhythm, it might be time to see the doctor. The three spheres of music are traditionally said to be rhythm, melody, and harmony. There’s a fourth one, as well. The writer Stanley Crouch has named it timbre, which means the sound of music. Of all of these spheres, rhythm is the primal one; after all, we are conceived in rhythm. Whether the music has its roots in Harlem USA or in Lahore, Pakistan, focusing on the rhythms that you’ll be hearing from both ensembles is the entryway into a deeper appreciation of the music.
Duke Ellington had a particularly felicitous phrase to represent music that made your toes tap; he called it encouraging the terpsichorean urge...and if part of you isn’t vibrating in rhythm, it might be time to see the doctor.
Pianist Jason Moran, currently the Kennedy Center’s artistic director for jazz, has long been pursuing an approach to jazz that takes into consideration not only the notes played but also the historical and cultural contexts that produced those notes. His brilliant adaption of a signal event in jazz history—Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert—is as much Moran as it is Monk. And that is as it should be. Monk himself was the legatee of the brilliant Harlem stride piano players of the first decades of the 20th century. All throughout his music are echoes of the music of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, and their peers. What made Monk’s music so original was that he found a way to combine those influences into a new, coherent whole. That is what Jason Moran has done, in turn, with Monk’s world. He has also created a program dealing with Fats Waller’s music that transposes the Harlem of the 1930s squarely into contemporary times without losing the essence of the original. Not one to shy away from nontraditional approaches—after all, his mentor was the brilliant and idiosyncratic pianist Jaki Byard—Moran uses multimedia throughout his Monk program that is all functional; it relates directly to Monk and in novel ways.
Members of the Sachal Ensemble perform music from Song of Lahore
The Sachal Ensemble has also found its own voice using the music of the past as its roots. In the group’s native Pakistan, a rich musical culture with a determinedly international mix was suddenly made verboten in 1977 with the imposition of Sharia law. All of a sudden, an entire population of musicians and people whose livelihood was tied to music was left adrift. Miraculously, over the ensuing years, various members of what was once a large musical aristocracy managed to keep the traditions alive. Producer and music lover Izzat Majeed, along with Mushtaq Soofi, secretly gathered these musicians at his Sachal Studios, for many years making sure to keep their activities under the radar.
Many times, this undertaking came at great personal risk, as you will see in Song of Lahore, a documentary film about their trip to New York to play with Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center. And it is that award-winning documentary that brings them to Stanford. It had a particularly strong effect on Chris Lorway, executive director of Stanford Live. “After seeing the brilliant documentary,” he wrote, “I was struck by two things that are important to consider at this moment: how soft power—like the State Department’s Jazz Ambassadors program—was used in the late 1960s to mitigate international perceptions of racial division and inequality and how the Lahore musicians’ sometimes frustrating rehearsals with Jazz at Lincoln Center can be seen as a metaphor for the immigrant experience, an often challenging transition into the melting pot.”
Dave Brubeck made a huge impact on Pakistan’s musicians during his 1958 U.S. State Department tour. “Take Five,” recorded the following year, was Brubeck’s most well-known recording, and something about it resonated with the musicians who eventually formed the Sachal Ensemble. They had no idea when they posted their version of the Brubeck piece on YouTube in 2011 that it would explode internationally. It was covered by the BBC, and something about the blend of traditional Pakistani instruments with the undulating curves of a jazz classic created a new sound.
Brubeck, an inveterate listener to new sounds and musicians, called it “one of the most interesting recordings of the song I’ve ever heard.” He was also entranced with bassist Christian McBride (no stranger to jazz at Stanford), whom he invited to play on his classic Young Lions and Old Tigers recording in 1995. McBride later became the director of the Dave Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony and continues to be a major presence across many musical genres. Besides being an artistic director at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, among many other distinguished positions, McBride is also the host of NPR’s outstanding radio series Jazz Night in America. Jason Moran’s Monk project was featured extensively on one of its broadcasts.
On top of the music, an insightful interview with Moran is interspersed throughout, adding so much depth to the understanding of what he’s after with this ambitious project. He pulls no punches when it comes to the challenges faced by the musicians who make this music in the contemporary world. Moran talks about being questioned by the police while doing nothing but waiting in his car for his wife to come down from their Harlem apartment. And in Song of Lahore, one of the featured players learns about the murder of one of their colleagues for no other reason than that he was carrying an instrument. The various forms of privilege that are given to or denied members of society are not an abstract thing for the people whose music you’ll be listening to, and it is that quality, the feeling of purpose and mission, that unites both ensembles in what they do. To be sure, the realities of day-to-day life in Pakistan and in the United States are very different, but when it comes down to it, the way that the ruling class deals with “the other” is what ultimately defines them.
Put side-by-side, these two ensembles coming from opposite ends of the planet bring not only dancing rhythms and the virtuosic control of instruments replete with many surprises of tone and time but also a joie de vivre that must be heard in person to be truly felt. As the Bing’s superb acoustics and sightlines have resonated with audiences, its reputation has also spread in the musical community. Somehow, the hall has a chameleon-like ability to make any sized ensemble, from the largest right down to a solo artist, sound as if they’re in the perfect, intimate setting. It’s a rare and wonderful opportunity that is being presented for the Stanford community to welcome all of these musicians to its home. There will be pre-concert lectures, and the more intrepid attendees will more than likely be able to meet the artists, as well. And that’s where the real magic happens.
Loren Schoenberg is the founding director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
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Sachal Ensemble: Song of Lahore