REVIEW: Charu Suri, ‘Ragas & Waltzes’

An invitation to the elegant marriage of the music of the East and the music of the West, and a wonderful showcase of Jazz Raga, the music created by Charu Suri.

Pianist/composer Charu Suri is all about breaking new ground. In 2019, she became the first female artist from India to perform a program of her own works at New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall, where she is scheduled to return in November 2022. Her body of work has been recognized by such revered institutions as the Jazz at Lincoln Center. As an artist, she has created an award-winning unique style of music that she refers to as Raga Jazz. Fearlessly treading between genres, Raga Jazz is influenced by the rich cultural heritage of her native land, the creative expression of jazz and elements of global traditions of various cultures. Suri’s Raga Jazz has reached audiences worldwide, particularly via two of her previous recorded outings: The Book of Ragas (2019) and its sequel, The Book of Ragas, Vol. 2 (2021).

Aside from its fascinating aesthetic, Suri’s music tells a personal story. It reflects her years as a traveling piano prodigy and the experiences that she has gathered along the way. That international story continues to be told on her new album, Ragas & Waltzes, produced by Lonnie Park, a GRAMMY Award winner. The new full-length offers a tender and stylish marriage between the music of the East and the music of the West. As its title suggests, it particularly finds its creative impetus in its reinvention of the classic European waltz. This marks a significant evolution in Suri’s creative expression, alongside the continuing influence of the traditional melodic system of India’s musical heritage. Further fortifying the project’s cross-cultural nature is the record’s instrumentation; a visionary assemblage of sounds from different corners of the world, including harps, violins, Native American flutes and more.

Further impetus came from a profoundly intimate place. Ragas & Waltzes is, in fact, dedicated to the memory of Suri’s late father, a music professional and music connoisseur, who passed away late last year on December 2021. “When I was in India, my father and I used to listen to waltzes as well as ragas,” she recalls via an official press release. “This is how I want to remember him.” A natural sense of loss and longing permeates the emotional “Waltz for My Father” and “Farewell Waltz,” while the soaring “Raga Kalyani” feels like the album’s spiritual centrepiece. Spirituality is an important aspect of Suri’s music and the album’s original artwork by Upasana Asrani reflects it by conveying the transformational and mystical aspects of life, symbolized by the lotus, which is India’s national flower.

However, there is also much room for celebration and joy within the program’s passionate palette. For example, the two opening waltzes elegantly transport the listener to a timeless place and the historical cities of Verona in Italy and Vienna in Austria. Aside from Suri’s sophisticated touch, revealing the solid grounding of her classical training, the sense of swing of these two original compositions is particularly striking and owes much to the presence of Joe Lastle, the renowned drummer of New Orleans’ fabled Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His presence adds a further personal touch to Suri’s story told on Ragas & Waltzes, as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was, in fact, the ensemble that inspired her start a band of her own four years ago.

Charu Suri’s Ragas & Waltzes will be released on September 2.

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