Mayer’s “Dhammapada” Still Vibrant After 40 Years

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MAYER: Dhammapada / London Music Fusions: Chris Taylor, fl; Tony Coe, cl/t-sax; Henry Lowther, tp; Clem Alford, sitar; Dreschen Theaker, tabla; Neil Colon, sarad/tanpura; John Leach, koto/cheng; Zack Laurence, pn; Toni Campo, bs; Harold Fisher, dm; Tristan Fry, Gary Kettel, Terence Emery, perc / Portraits of Bengal. Tantrik Dances / Chris Taylor, fl/pic; Philip Hill, oboe/E-hn; Thomas Kelly, cl/bs-cl; Clem Alford, sitar/tanpura; Keshav Sathe, tabla/tanpura; Catherine Sathe, Neena Guppa, tanpura; Jan Latham-Koenig, pn; Christopher Lawrence, bs/el-bs; Terence Emery, perc; John Mayer, dir / First Hand Records FHR-50

John Mayer, the son of an Anglo-Indian dockworker and a Tamil mother, was born in 1929 and grew up in what amounted to a shack in Calcutta. When his mother noted that he was musically talented and wanted to play the violin, she went to see Dr. Philippe Sandre, principal of the Calcutta School of Music, and asked him to take her son as a pupil. Sandre agreed on the condition that he be brought to him during his lunch break so that no one could object to his teaching him free of charge. This led to an unorthodox but great career: playing in the string section of the Calcutta Symphony by age 13, playing in the musical ensemble of the Lighthouse Cinema at age 15, then studying Indian classical music with Melhi Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s father, where he made great progress. Already by age 22, in 1951, Mayer won first prize in a violin competition which allowed him to study violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London and composition with the excellent but now-neglected composer, Matyás Sieber. For the next decade he combined life as an orchestral musician with composing his own music. He died in 2004.

mayerBy the early 1970s, Mayer was becoming famous for writing Indo-Jazz fusion music, thus in 1976 Lansdowne Records, a division of EMI, commissioned him to write a piece which he was to record with musicians of his own choosing. The result was Dhammapada, an eight-part suite that combined his three great loves in life: Indian music, classical music and jazz. As you can hear on this excellent reissue, the music was like nothing else then or now. It starts out gently, as music for meditation, but gradually turns into an Indian-flavored jazz romp not too far removed from the kind of music that Don Ellis had produced with the Hindustani Jazz Sextet or his own big band (although there are listeners who dislike the music of the Ellis big band).

The opening section of the suite, which is the longest at 12:57, is one of those pieces that morphs, develops and grows in a way similar to Charles Mingus’ Cumbia and Jazz Fusion, with the jazz improvisation not entering the picture until the 5:30 mark with a crackling trumpet solo by Henry Lowther. The band fairly bubbles behind him as Mayer cleverly blends Eastern and Western instruments together, the sitar bending blues licks behind Tony Coe’s tenor sax solo. In addition to being creative and exciting, this is also happy music, a kind so seldom heard nowadays.

What makes Mayer’s achievement so interesting is the way he was able to build this huge structure on a few very simple musical building-blocks. This was obviously a technique he learned from Sieber, whose own jazz-based works used the same principles. The really neat part about it is that Mayer is not just assuming a position of jumbling things together, but really knew what he was doing at every step. His deep knowledge of both Indian and Western classical music kept him grounded as he fused the two together; he knew exactly how to dovetail rhythms and timbres, how to switch between two different structures. It’s truly engaging and creative music. By the time you reach the fifth section, titled “Bhikkhu,” you almost feel as if you’re swinging down Yo-Yo- Ma’s Silk Road, but with a different beat. Some of it almost sounds like belly dancing music. My only disappointment was that the last track, “Chakka,” faded out. I always consider fade-outs to be musical cop-outs.

This is followed on the CD by two live performances Mayer gave in 1974. The greater space around the instruments makes them sound as if they are being played in a vast auditorium, the sounds almost hovering above your head, and the music, by and large, is more concise, much more classically-oriented and lacking a jazz reference. This does not, of course, mean it is less interesting or well-written, only that the feel of the music is more ruminative, relies more on wind instruments and is meant to create an ambience. Many of the pieces in 9 Portraits of Bengal sound like they cold be background music for an Indian movie or a TV mystery show although the Finale is rhythmically lively with an uninteresting backbeat playing against the syncopations of the oboe and sitar.

The Tantrik Dances are looser music combining meditative moments with some very strong rhythmic kicks. The most ruminative music is “The Search for Radha” while the most effervescent is the “Dance of Ecstasy.” All in all, Mayer’s music really does inhabit its own unique sound-world, and this CD is a unique and precious document of one of the most intriguing and eclectic composers of his time.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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