| Austrian guitarist Alex Machacek and his wife Sumitra Nandunjan in performance at the Congo Square concert at Dalhousie Institute on Thursday evening. Picture by Amit Datta
Congo Square, who have enriched our winters by reviving the practice of inviting internationally acclaimed jazz musicians to play in Calcutta, held their first event of the season on Thursday evening at the Dalhousie Institute.
First up were Austrian guitarist Alex Machacek and his wife Sumitra Nandunjan, who sang tracks from her album Indian Girl and included the well-known jazz standard Lush life in her set of about 45 minutes. She is an accomplished vocalist with a rich, rounded, warm tone of voice, good control modulation and range with a strong lower register and, most importantly, she emotes naturally and can draw you in.
Being just voice and guitar, many of the pieces had an ad-lib feel to them; free of tempo and even in the passages where they kept time, they were loose and relaxed. They set up a suitable mood for the evening and on their last piece, Destiny, were joined towards the end by drumming maestro Jeff Sipe and bassist Lew Hilt, who is a household name in Calcutta's music scene and now lives in Delhi.
Destiny went into 7/8 time when the band came together; they held the groove till the end of the piece, Sumitra said farewell and then the trio took over.
Machacek and Sipe were on their first visit to the city, but they have both played as a trio with bassist Jonas Hellborg who has visited a number of times, most memorably with guitar player Shawn Lane, who sadly passed away after leaving audiences here spellbound.
The drummer on those occasions was Andrea Marchesini from Italy, standing in for Jeff Sipe who got together with Lane and Hellborg in the late 1990s, toured with them extensively and recorded the fusion album Temporal Analogues of Paradise. Sipe was also in the band Aquarium Rescue Unit with Col. Bruce Hampton and Jimmy Herring. Machacek is also a heavyweight who has worked with Terry Bozzio, Frank Zappa's drummer.
On Thursday evening, the compositions played by the trio were his. Intense, intricate and highly demanding of every skill possessed by the musicians, there were four compositions played that night.
The first was Yellow Pages which started with an avant garde, free-form kind of introduction, and then moved in and out of grooves, with the music working up a storm and alternating with quieter, more lyrical passages throughout the piece.
Lew Hilt had some space on this piece in which he played some attacking lines with a slightly Indian feel. Drummer Sipe was exceptional ' easily the finest we have seen in the last couple of decades. He has an amazing vocabulary and can create all kinds of textures with a technique so advanced that everything appears to be so easy.
More than the tightness, precision and dynamics that one expects from any good drummer, Sipe was able to throw splashes of colour into the air and mesmerise. Tasteful and highly sophisticated, his creativity continued to surprise throughout the evening. He read Machacek's intentions well and shaped the music with true personality.
Machacek is a guitar player in a modern mould, also with the very best technical facility, and coming from a tradition pioneered by Alan Holdsworth.
His depth, intricacy and complexity as a player and a composer came to the fore in the second piece they played, called Strafe. This had a lot of complex unison work for the trio which then moved in and out of a rock groove with free form interludes that had shades of the music you might find in a theme for a sci-fi-dream movie.
Haley's Comet came next, with Sipe setting up a swinging, rocking backdrop against which Hilt played a short, melodious solo supported by strong tempo from Sipe.
They closed the set with Austin Powers, which again highlighted the many dimensions that this music has. Intense and cerebral as it can get, they timed the duration of the concert to a nicety, which they did to the different movements within the pieces as well, never getting carried away which showed maturity.
The evening ended with a short set by Hawaiian guitar player Debashish Bhattacharya accompanied by Tanmoy Bose on tabla.
They did some Indian classical pieces and regaled the audience with some lively jugalbandi when they invited Jeff Sipe to jam with them. He used brushes for this jam, which was the perfect choice because it maintained the right dynamics.
Audiences in the city are looking forward to more such concerts this season.