Monday, May 25, 2020

Sharon Isbin’s Second New Album Faces East

Amjad Ali Khan playing his sarod at a 2008 concert in Kochi (photograph by Anees Kodlyathur, from Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The second of the two new Zoho albums featuring guitarist Sharon Isbin is actually a “partnership” performance. Strings for Peace presents four compositions by sarod master Amjad Ali Khan, scored as duos for guitar and sarod and specifically written for Isbin. The album is somewhat of a “family affair,” since Isbin performs only one of those ragas with Khan. The others are played with his two virtuoso sons, Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Bangash. Each performance also includes tabla accompaniment, performed by Amit Kavthekar.

Those of my generation may recall the release of the album West Meets East in the late Sixties, around the same time that The Beatles were discovering Indian classical music. West Meets East was recorded shortly after the Bath Music Festival in the spring of 1966, when violinist Yehudi Menuhin played duets with Ravi Shankar, at the time the most familiar name in the West associated with Indian classical music. The album was released in January of 1967 with two “follow-up” volumes coming out in 1968 and 1976. What was probably most interesting about these recordings was Menuhin’s skill in following Shankar, particularly when it came to matching Indian intonation, which frequently departed from the equal-tempered chromatic scale.

Menuhin had a far more advantageous situation than did Isbin, since a violin has no frets. While Isbin had no trouble with dexterity in dealing with the passages that Kahn composed for her, it does not take a considerable amount of training to recognize that the pitches from her guitar do not always align with those of the sarod. There is no doubt of the “willingness of spirit” that prompted both Isbin and Khan to engage in this project. However, the chromatic complexity of all of the plucked Indian instruments establishes a domain far beyond the imagination of even the most skilled Western musicians.

That said, there is what may be a more significant difference between Menuhin and Isbin in the latter’s favor. Shankar already had an international reputation by the time he was invited to Bath. I might even be so bold as to suggest that, without that reputation, he probably would not have been invited! On the other hand, while Khan first performed in the United States as early as 1963, he never achieved the “star power” that fell to Shankar and a few other Indians. While I would not bet on Strings for Peace elevating Khan to “household name” status, the four tracks on this new album are sufficiently engaging (regardless of intonation matters) that Khan may finally get that broader attention that has been due to him for over half a century.

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