The Three Seas

Australian National Maritime Museum, March 18


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The Three Seas. Photo supplied.

They arrived on stage one at a time, each ritually striking a brass bowl that seemed to ring for about as long as our Prime Ministers currently last. This sense of theatre remained in play, partly thanks to the colourful clothing and exotic instruments, and even more to the music itself.

Jazz players have routinely collaborated with India’s Hindustani or Carnatic classical musicians. The masterstroke of Matt Keegan and his colleagues is to have found fruitful commonalities between jazz elements and Indian folk music (notably the Baul idiom of West Bengal). The upshot was a sound that seemed simpler on the surface, yet was so replete with nuances of texture, rhythm and improvisational interaction as to be like a cave of treasures where one chamber of wonders kept opening on another.

In 2014 the core of these players released a mesmerising album called Haveli, tinged with a vague halo of ’60s psychedelia. Here the music was earthier and the idioms so thoroughly intertwined as to beg for longer improvisations.

It was also the sort of project from which ethnomusicologists milk doctorates. Anyone who ever doubted the theory that flamenco’s roots lie in India, for instance, would have eaten humble samosa upon hearing Rahu Das Baul’s soaring, braying singing. This was a voice was so vibrant you expected to see air molecules splitting in its path. Meanwhile he played the khamak, a Bengali variant of the West African talking drum with an even more astounding capacity to imitate vocal inflections. Deo Ashish Mothey single-handedly turned the band into an orchestra by swapping between the bowed esraj, plucked dotora, guitar, assorted percussion and his own beguiling (if less dramatic) singing.

Steve Elphick (double bass) and Gaurab Chatterjee (drums, percussion) were a rhythm section as full of subtleties and surprises as of groove. Keegan, the main composer, played baritone rather than his usual tenor saxophone, achieving an extraordinarily tenor-like timbre and litheness, but with the bigger instrument’s sheer mass and bottom end. This project deserves a major festival’s support.