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Neil Mukherjee Trio brings flamenco to Prithvi

It was most appropriate to hear world music at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, venue for the performance of the Neil Mukherjee Trio – featuring Neil Mukherjee on guitar, Aditya Jayakar on piano, and Shravan Samsi on drums – on February 25, 2024. Presented by Louiz Banks, and curated by son Gino, the monthly series dubbed as “Jazz@Prithvi” features predominantly jazz musicians performing original compositions.

Although the 11am proceedings commenced ten minutes off the scheduled time, Neil Mukherjee strode into the stage, picking up an acoustic guitar to commence his performance with a selection influenced by his visit to Granada. It was followed by “Waking”, a melodic and harmonic composition based on raga todi, with Neil’s mastery of flamenco guitar techniques supported by the balance members who joined him on stage as the trio ensured that the two distinct musical traditions converged. The waltz-driven “A Carpenter’s Song” was followed by “Mumbai Tango”, based on Neil’s experience of residing in the city for the past 15 years or so, and you could just feel your foot tapping to the beat of the selection. Equally effective was the Middle Eastern influences on “Through The Sands” where Neil, in changing his acoustic guitar for another, managed to have it sound like the oud. “Song From The Mountain” was pure folk, which Neil explained, was based on influences from Nepal. A return to mellow Indian sounds occurred immediately thereafter on “Swan Song”, based on Raga hamsadhvani.

Neil Mukherjee on guitar

In providing pianist Aditya multiple opportunities of showcasing a counterpoint to his musical points, Neil was a sublime leader who ensured that his fellow musicians were provided sufficient opportunity to display their respective talents, especially on “Kolkata thekey Constantinople”, where drummer Shravan displayed his immense talent of maintaining a beat balance while also dwelling into other percussion instrumentation. The ever changing tempos within the song also kicked in a bit of rockabilly that went on to show the versatility of the band, a tune that was followed by the percussion heavy “Proteas”. The 90-minute set of pure instrumental selections – barring the straight-from-the heart anecdotes provided by Neil in-between songs – concluded with “It Could Be Rain”, based on various monsoon ragas, a fitting end to the reveling sounds of the Neil Mukherjee Trio.

Without a bassist, it was always considered a challenge to cover up for this vacuum but, in reality, the competency of the band never allowed such worries to creep in. Further, Neil’s obvious command on the guitar made it sound as if there were two guitarists that were playing simultaneously, which reminded me of first listening to U.S. guitarist Stanley Jordan.

While neither the origin nor an exact description of flamenco music is known or, in any event, is considered moot, it really is difficult to provide an apt description to the songs of Neil Mukherjee. But keeping in mind his non-traditional approach, “Nouveau Flamenco” appears to be the closest as it represents both an experimental and spirited new sound that blends the heart and soul of the Spanish gypsy guitar, producing a sound obviously influenced by immigrants visiting the country, with a contemporary groove flavoured by India and its sub-continent, South American, Middle Eastern, jazz ,and Latino-pop influences, among others, with Neil’s music expressing what is inseparably both universal and deeply personal.

The other fascinating thing about Neil’s flamenco sounds is that each piece can sound different every time the track is performed and, while there remain innumerable recognizable phrases and themes, the music is rarely (if ever) played the same way twice. Nevertheless, while the Neil Mukherjee Trio’s rhythmic music may sound unusual initially, it also becomes almost immediately clear thereafter that the tunes are fairly accessible too. One really does not know where the Trio would have taken the audience should Neil have had an opportunity of playing the electric guitar (the band ran out of time to complete their setlist) but paradoxically, even without it, there is no denying that their current performance remained electrifying.

Neil Mukherjee Trio

While this writer is guilty in having ignored attending any of Neil’s performances of the past, the only regret now, having finally having seen him live, is that of missing out on listening to a composer/guitarist whose talent is of a rare breed of being innovative, enduring, endearing, and introspective (considering that the compositions are based on personal thoughts/experiences), all together.

As a listener, if you are planning a trip around the globe, you might like to consider doing it a lot closer home through the astonishing sounds of world music that transcends through the Neil Mukherjee Trio.

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