On its fourth outing and its first for ECM, the Indian/Persian duo Ghazal chose to record a live album. Issued from a concert in Switzerland, the recording blends the musical styles of both countries. Shujaat Husain Khan, a direct descendant (grandson) of the venerable musician and spiritual master Ustad Vilayat Khan, plays sitar in the Imad Khan Gharana style that concentrates its method to emulate the sonorities of the human voice. Kayhan Kalhor, from Tehran, plays the kamancheh (a type of East Indian violin), and is a renowned composer as well as a soloist (he can be heard on Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road project -- which was born out of Ghazal's own trilogy on the Silk Road). In just three short albums (all available on the Shanachie label in the United States), both men have been able to create an entirely new musical hybrid that gives no quarter, and pays no mind, to current trends in world or popular music -- from the bridging of the individual cultures, they have devised a music that comes right from the ancient into the postmodern world honestly, purely, and dazzlingly, because of their harmonic and improvisational virtuosity. Master percussionist Sandeep Das accompanied the duo in this concert.
There are three different sections in this performance, all of them improvisations based on classical themes. "Fire" draws its origin in the Indian mode of Darbari and the Persian Nava mode. Beginning slowly and droningly, the piece moves through various stages and ends in a frenzy of strummed, picked, and droning sitar lines and flights of ecstatic legato kamancheh lines before whispering to a close some 18 minutes later. "Dawn" comes out of the Indian Kirwani mode and the Persian Ishahan, where middle-tempo drones are built one onto another before slow melodic lines are interspersed into the space between instruments. There is a dialogue between the instruments, engaging slowly along harmonic lines before the modes seem to fuse and create something else before moving more quickly out of the droning sequences into deep improvisational engagement. The various verses are prayers, inserted as sung poetry, not looking for the defined territory of a "verse" per se, but an interlude. The piece never really moves beyond midtempo, but the space and beauty echoing between performers is seductive and powerfully captivating. "Eternity," a sprightly pastoral dance, is an engagement of all three artists in the heat of discovery, opening the older modes of origin -- Khammaj from the Indian and Mahur from the Persian -- into something akin to complete creation from the ether. The musicians talk to and encourage one another, spurring one another on not in competition but in contemplative encouragement. This is the sound of meditation in action -- a place where all forms of beauty are articulated in a musical language beyond the participants' wildest dreams, and the listener can hear their astonishment. At its end, the listener is left exhausted and in wonder at the sheer sonic and atmospheric poetry that is as intense as any fiery jazz quartet and as spiritually affirming as the sunrise. Devastatingly beautiful. (A consumer's note: though this is on ECM, there is no trace of the "ECM sound" on this recording, and though it was mixed for this CD, it remains full of its original live ambience.)