I liked the album, Sachal Jazz, as well as the concept, and still do, so an opportunity to see and review the live event, Sachal Jazz Ensemble Live At Queen Elizabeth Hall on Tuesday, 17th April, was not something I was going to miss.
The personnel for the here re-named Sachal Jazz Ensemble differed from that of the recording, and with it the instrumental make up as well. Obviously, for a start it would have been impractical/too expensive to fly out the whole string section from Pakistan, and thus it was substituted with a smaller local one. Some of the Indo-Pakistani instrumentation and soloists were also changed. Most interestingly, the number of Western guest musicians was greatly increased and included a number of renowned players of great calibre such as Steve Lodder on piano, John Parricelli on guitar, and Derek Watkins on flugel and trumpet, the latter also featured on one track of the album. Parricelli and Lodder in particular not only sounded exciting but promised to make for an exciting evening indeed.
Last night's material was likewise greatly changed from that of the album and included only three of the tracks, The Girl From Ipanema, Mountain Dance, and Take Five. Of the remaining eleven pieces, six were originals/Indo-Pakistani compositions, and the remaining five 'classics' included two, Besame Mucho and the Pink Panther Theme, that certainly did not fit the original theme of Interpretations Of Jazz Standards And Bossa Nova of the album.
So obviously, this was going to be a very different affair from the album. But, fair enough. So what was Sachal Jazz Ensemble Live At Queen Elizabeth Hall like then?
At this point, those of a more sensitive disposition may want to stop reading and instead turn to something more comforting.
A delay of approximately fifteen minutes certainly wasn't an ideal start for a venue such as this. However, it provided more time to peruse the large programme booklet provided on every seat. A somewhat overly lengthy introduction that followed - which could and should have been, and indeed partly was included in the programme - did not help move things forward.
When Sachal Jazz Ensemble Live At Queen Elizabeth Hall finally did get under way, problems were alas immediately all too obvious. The first and most obvious of these was the sound engineering. (SBC engineers can be far short of perfect from experience, but this was an atrocity beyond comprehension. The kindest thing to be done in this instance would have been to take the engineer/s outside and...)
It was horrendous, with the sub-continental instruments vastly over-amplified - the sarangi in particular as it turned out later, whose first entry in the first half could have woken the dead and burst eardrums, followed by the percussion and bansuri in particular. The guitars, basses and piano were hardly to be heard even when they did play, except for brief interludes when the Indo-Pakistani instruments were silent, and even the drum kit - on the rare occasion that it was used - and the flugelhorn and trumpet often were inaudible or almost inaudible. As for the strings, they were almost completely drowned out and at best surfaced as a mere distant murmur very occasionally, and very rarely indeed more than that. On the whole, the Western instruments were only properly audible during very brief, composed solos.
The balance was slightly improved after the interval, but nowhere near sufficiently, and the Indian instruments were, by and large, still unpleasantly over-amplified.
The next problem to emerge was the quality - and length! - of the arrangements. The quality just was not there, and they quickly became predictable with the sitar and bansuris predominating almost invariably in taking the lead, and a thunderous tabla or other drum solo seemingly every few minutes. Of the Indian instruments, the sarod in particular seemed sadly under-used and would have suited many pieces far better than the near-constant wail of the sitar or the shrill banshee-like howl of the small and mid-sized bansuris.
Completely under-used were the Western guest musicians, some of whom must have wondered why they were there at all other than to help pay the mortgage perhaps. Why on earth musicians of the calibre and standing of Lodder, Parricelli and Watkins were hired seems almost incomprehensible, when any half-competent student would have done. Perhaps to help put bums on seats? Musically, they certainly were totally wasted here.
But the arrangements were definitely long. Very, inordinately long, and seemingly endlessly repetitive. If the Indian instruments had not been so loud, you might have been forgiven for nodding off now and then. And, with a similarly musically sensitive audience, the conductor might have asked you not to snore so loud as you might wake up the rest of the audience.
Sadly, this most decidedly was a case of 'never mind the quality, just feel the length,' to paraphrase a sitcom title of yesteryear.
Of individual pieces, The Girl From Ipanema and Wave were especially done hard by. The former was taken at what seemed like break-neck tempo and with so much, so prominent Indian percussion, it became almost unrecognisable. While the latter was just plain murdered, its corpse only recognisable from the first few bars.
The conductor was, alas, mostly quite ineffectual, and at times different sections even ended up playing at different tempi!
Yet, for some strange unfathomable reason, the - ethnically well mixed - audience just lapped it all up and loved it to bits, as witnessed by the raucous applause after each and every piece. At these times, I had to ask myself whether I was the only one with musical ears inside that auditorium and begin to at least slightly question my sanity. Fortunately, I later discovered to my relief that neither of these need have concerned me.
Please don't get me wrong here, it is not the actual musicians that I am criticising, but rather, the blame for this whole fiasco has to be laid firmly and sqarely at the feet of the arrangers and producers.
Then there was the material itself. The originals/Indo-Pakistani compositions neither fit the theme nor did they cut it for a programme like this, I regret to say. The only half decently fitting one was Sachal Jazz Tabla, entirely a tabla solo with call-and-response, of sorts, with piano and double bass. Of course, one could see just why this material, and so much of it, was included, i.e., in order to gain some royalty payments and thus help with the overall costs. The costs of staging an event such as this are high, so that is understandable. However, at the same time, there just are no ways of cutting costs without paying the price artistically.
Besame Mucho and the Pink Panther Theme are both excellent, well-crafted and popular tunes, but whether they fit into a (supposedly) jazz themed event is highly questionable, especially in the case of the latter, while the former might arguably suit a Latin jazz context.
But then, the whole selection of material regrettably seemed like a terribly bastardised mish-mash. Perhaps, or indeed most likely, a selection of the arrangers' favourites. But that certainly rarely makes for a good criterion to select tunes for a concert of this nature and most definitely didn't work here.
A late finish of almost half an hour neither helped nor improved anything.
It would have been better by far to have stuck to as similar an instrumentation to that of the album as feasible, and to the material and arrangements of the album as closely as possible. With the addition of a few more 'safe' jazz standards or classics, and a few more bossa classics. All the while keeping arrangements simple, short and sweet.
Possibly some lessons might be learned from a perhaps somewhat obscure recording of a not too dissimilar nature from, if memory serves, about 2001 - Anthony Brown's Asian American Orchestra's Monks Moods: Music Of Thelonious Monk. This presents a variety of Chinese instruments in combination with a contemporary big band, with arrangements of jazz giant Monk's compositions. Yes, here it is the big band, the Western instruments and soloists that tend to dominate. But think out of the box and look at it in reverse.
I had been looking forward to Sachal Jazz Ensemble Live At Queen Elizabeth Hall - this promised so much and could have been such a wonderful showcase for Pakistan's rich culture and for its musicians - and to giving this a hopefully positive review. It saddens me deeply that the latter has proved impossible. However, I have tried my utmost to remain as constructive as possible. I still love the concept though, absolutely, and hope that the arrangers and producers will carry it forward. After taking a good, long, hard look at what went wrong last night, hopefully. And hopefully they won't have been fooled by an on this occasion largely tone-deaf audience. My best wishes are with the Sachal Jazz Ensemble.