Review: Rāga Jazz Style (Shankar-Jaikishan)

Re-issued on Outernational Sounds a half-century after its initial release, Rāga Jazz Style is a rare recording from the rich Bombay jazz scene. While its 1968 release date might suggest a pioneering work of Indo-jazz fusion, part of the recording’s intrigue is that it is not. Rather, it is one of the few surviving documents from a thriving fusion scene that dates back to the 1920s – few realise that jazz was being played in India before Coltrane was even born.

The album comprises eleven short pieces, each based on the melodic structure of a particular North Indian (Hindustani) rāga. The whistlestop tour of contrasting moods builds a film-like sense of momentum, and this variety is matched by contrasting musical textures – washes of sitar and tanpura drone are joined by saxophone, drums, tabla, flute, piano, and electric guitar. The music avoids claustrophobia despite this full instrument grouping, with Manohari Singh’s rich-toned saxophone sitting in the centre, subtly inflecting melodies that are rich yet unclustered.

If anything the slower tracks may seem a little too restrained, at least to ears more accustomed to other rāga-jazz meeting points – more prominent excursions, such as those of Coltrane and McLaughlin, typically feature lengthy soloing and fearsome rhythmic improvisations. But Shankar-Jaikishan are primarily Bollywood composers, and do not aim for abstract spiritual explorations here. Instead, the music’s distinctiveness comes from the ease with which it conjures real-world situations to the imagination: Todi suggests a bustling market chase, while Tilak Kamod could soundtrack ballroom dancing in the five-star expat hotels of Bombay – a scene all band members cut their teeth playing on. And the sultry melodic disdain of Mian Malhar sounds somehow iconic even on first listen.

The music is concise and refined, yet far from polite – bursts of fury from Ustad Rais Khan’s sitar are never far away, and Goan drummer Leslie Godinho hits hard (some even say that Joe Morello picked up the beat for Take Five via jamming with Godinho in a Delhi hotel room, while on a State Department tour in the 50s). This work is an intriguing historical artefact that points to several hidden histories of rāga-jazz fusion, reminding the listener that Indian musicians were experimenting with jazz long before the reverse was true.

Raga Jazz Style is released as a limited, vinyl-only edition on a 180g pressing. Distributed by Honest Jons.

Outernational Sounds is a new label from Harvinder Nagi (DJ Harv,, bringing you Spiritual, Eastern, Afro Eurasian, Middle Eastern, and Outer Galactic Deep Jazz Vibes from around the globe and beyond…

By George Howlett


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