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Chicago Tribune Review

Sandip Burman leads his friends in evening of hybrid exploration
by Aaron Cohen

When tabla player Sandip Burman introduced his band at Ravinia's Martin Theater on Monday night, he suggested that Indian music could be an ideal fit with jazz. He said his piece "East Meets Jazz" (also the program title) shares a rhythmic structure with common jazz time. When the other members of his sextet responded to his concept with their instruments, their groove illuminated his words. Throughout much of the concert, the group strove to recapture that ideal.

While Burman's hybrid stands apart from what's generally considered mainstream jazz, the mixture has notable precedents. Duke Ellington looked toward Asia for inspiration on "Far East Suite," and Indian music fascinated saxophonist John Coltrane. Miles Davis also used tablas. Recently, guitarist John McLaughlin has revisited his 1970's jazz/traditional Indian band, Shakti.

Burman is quite aware of this lineage, as was his violinist on Monday night, Jerry Goodman, who once worked in McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. Although the other members of the group are not as closely linked to this continuum, their manifold experiences across jazz and pop realms were reflected in the open-mined enthusiasm they brought to this percussionist's undertaking. After watching Burman perform, it's easy to see why his colleagues don't mind learning the Indian ragas that are the basis for his melodies. He has an infectious smile and leads with quick head and neck movements, rapidly delivered spoken staccato phrases and his own impeccable technique. A duo between Burman and Howard Levy on piano was filled with all sorts of surprising tempo shifts. Along with drummer Steve Smith and bassist Victor Bailey, the group featured a dynamic rhythm section, which made Goodman sound particularly impressive.

The violinist held his own among the percussionists and seemed to build his own rich tone off of their drive. He also blended especially well with saxophonist David Pietro as he added European classical sensibilities.

One engrossing passage was when Burman and Smith followed a duo between Pietro and Levy. Everything about the transition into a group performance flowed with the right amount of subtlety. Without drawing on any polyrhythmic tricks, Burman quietly quickened the tempo and created his sought-after balance between jazz harmonies and Indian rhythms.

Throughout the concert, Levy's lengthy harmonica lines seemed strained. He does bring sounds out of the instrument that nobody else has even attempted. The problem is that his onslaught seems to lack direction.

A few other solo interludes just got weird. Smith took a turn playing a few unaccompanied numbers on different parts of his kit. Although brevity kept it from becoming too self-indulgent, the performance seemed more about spectacle than music. Bailey also sang over his own bass solo with a voice that could charitably be described as limited. At least the lyrics were funny.

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