“I know some of you don’t quite know what to expect,” Steve Smith told the late-show audience at the Van Dyck in Schenectady last week. Well, this wouldn’t be the first time the former Journey drummer had blown minds in this space: His spring appearance with Vital Legacy (an amalgam of Smith’s fusion group Vital Information and his trad-jazz outfit Jazz Legacy) played sounds that were as far from “Don’t Stop Believing” as Earth is from Mars. But as vast as that expanse might have been, the Raga Bop Trio broadcasts from a whole other universe.
The group’s name comes from the title of a composition by band member Prasanna, an Indian-born musician and educator who’s worked with roaring young-lion pianist Vijay Iyer, among many others. “Ragabop” is also great shorthand for the explosive onslaught the trio launched right out of the gate with the tune of the same name. It started with a souped-up raga straight out of Carnatic tradition – except instead of a sitar, Prasanna was absolutely shredding the place with some of the best guitar I’ve heard this season. George Brooks flew tight formation on alto sax, while Smith was an absolute blur behind his kit. Then, just as we were starting to get used to the electric paradigm, the trio shifted gears and dropped inside some deep, dark blues, with Brooks honking out a scorching lead.
The piece commuted between West and East as the intensity climbed like a rocket, and with no bass to flatten it or keyboards to sweeten it, the final product was as nasty and muscular as the people who were playing it. Maybe the Journey fans in the house were scrambling, but anyone familiar with Vital Information spotted a kinda-sorta-familiar landmark with “Moonlanding”, a juicy slab of “traditional” fusion that had Prasanna checking all the usual flame-throwing-guitar boxes. Brooks’ “Miss Ona” was a samba at its core, with Smith moving from sticks to brushes (although Smith on brushes is as powerful as most drummers on sticks). And while most of the set was blinding in its energy, “Geruda” had a more reflective quality, even as it maintained echoes of the assaults that had come before.
Prasanna may be a new name for you, but he’s been melding South Indian Carnatic music with electric guitar for almost 20 years, and that combination drives “Dubai Dance” and “Katyayini” (a duo piece named after Prasanna’s daughter, composed about ten minutes after her birth). But on “Moonlanding”, the challengingly timed “Ironically,” and an encore that mixed the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows” with Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” Prasanna’s attack easily conjured up images of John McLaughlin and Mike Stern, with a tone that could find steady work as an industrial chainsaw. Brooks had the chops to make the Eastern portions of Prasanna’s compositions ring with resounding legitimacy, but Brooks can also honk it like Junior Walker, as he did on “Dubai” and “Ragabop.” He also paid tribute to the Van Dyck with the best line of the night, and he wasn’t being sarcastic: “New York City last night, Washington, DC tomorrow… What better place to stop?”
As much as Smith loved what he did during his spring appearance, you got the sense he was working even harder with Raga Bop Trio. Vital Legacy’s music had its complexities, to be sure, but this show was not just about mixing music with music, or loud with louder; it was also mixing one culture with another, and that requires a lot more than just technical thunder and lightning. Smith’s expression throughout the night was that of a man playing three-dimensional chess while running a triathlon… or maybe it was that look Bruce Lee always had when faced with another wave of ninjas, this one more armed and dangerous than the last. Either way, it ended the same: The ninjas were dead on the floor ,and the crowd was on its feet, cheering the victors – in this case, three consummate players blowing a tornado of fresh air into a musical sub-genre that has a nasty tendency to disappear inside itself.
Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk