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Pure Sarod: Alam Khan Invites Listeners into the Sonic Richness and Nuance of Indian Classical Music on Immersion

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Contributed by : Ron Kadish

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Sarod, the 25-stringed North Indian classical instrument rich in resonances, plays well with others, but is best savored solo. Master player Alam Khan knows this, having studied at his father Ustad Ali Akbar Khan's knee and taking up his style and lineage. On Immersion (release: March 30, 2018), he unfurls the instrument's stirring beauty via several ragas, a tribute to his family's accumulated knowledge and his own carefully honed artistic sense.

Though a virtuoso, Khan does not want virtuosity to be listeners' only focus. I want people to take the time to sit and be with these pieces. In this fast-paced age, we are constantly busy, and our minds are always running from thing to thing, reflects Khan. Indian classical music offers you a chance to stop and be present in the moment. It lets you reconnect with yourself and take time to enjoy something that is an unfolding journey.

The unfolding flows through fine-tuned improvisational structures that allow masterful musicians like Khan to build entire worlds out of compositions and ragas (modes/scales). They have ample room to expand on the beauties and subtleties of their instrument, the overtones and nuances of moving from note to note. This sonic breadth evokes times and seasons, and for this recording, Khan chose several night-time ragas.

Khan is a respected teacher and collaborator, a torchbearer of the Maihar gharana (musical family or clan) which was created by his grandfather Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan. Based in California, Alam can shift effortlessly from strictly classical contexts to wildly creative projects, everything from the hip hop-meet-Indian classical conversation of Grand Tapestry to work with Tedeschi Trucks Band, Beats Antique, Karsh Kale, and the San Francisco Symphony.

Nonetheless, it felt important to Khan to get into the studio for a purely classical project, one with pared-down instrumentation and traditional piece structures. Indian classical musicians, like my father for example, have countless classical records, and these recordings are important, says Khan. Although I perform classical music regularly, I haven't recorded a purely classical album in a number of years. Classical music is my foundation and my guide through which I create everything. I just felt like it was the right time to get back in the studio and make an album for all the classical listeners and for those that haven't yet heard this music.

One key aspect of a classical recording: it gives listeners full opportunity to sit and soak in the myriad sounds of the Sarod. Though I love working in contemporary contexts, you don't hear the full entirety of the instrument, all its resonance and glory, Khan states.

Khan absorbed the facets of this glory by training since childhood with his father, who brought the instrument and greater awareness of Indian classical music in general to American audiences in the 60s. My father was a legend and his style was unique. What he passed on to me was a deep sense of that style, the feeling, touch, tone, all those kinds of things. Once I learned to emulate what he wanted me to play, I learned the reasons behind why I'm playing that. My father has passed on, but I want to continue his aesthetic and approach.

Part of that approach adheres to the essence of the raga and its connection to a particular time of day and mood. Every raga was created for a certain time of day.When you play or listen to the ragas at the correct time, the full potential and wonder comes out, he notes. The traditional system of ragas and time is very important to my family and me.

Khan chose to play several ragas that had been on his mind for the weeks and months prior to the recording session. Rag Kaushi Kanra' is the first piece on the album. If you listen to it at night, you'll feel the power of what lies within the notes and the phrasing, Khan explains. It's still beautiful in the morning, but it won't give you the same feeling or effect. It's on the heavier side, evoking a somber reflective mood, one of devotion, pathos , and peace.

Khan recorded Immersion as he would have performed live. The pieces move through improvisatory expositions,and pre-composed gats (themes). The ragas, though all night time-related, shade from deeply contemplative to lighter and brighter as the album progresses, much as they would in concert. He is accompanied by the traditional combination of Tabla (Indranil Mallick) and Tanpura (Khan's student Benjamin Araki).

In their complexity and beauty, the pieces draw the listener in, to drink deeply from the sound and power of the music. I tell my students that to understand this music they must become fully immersed in it through listening, playing, and feeling, muses Khan. Sonically, I like to feel immersed in the music, and I want listeners to join me there.



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