The recorded legacy of India’s master sitarist, Ravi Shankar, who died on December 11th at age 92, is literally a life’s work. Shankar was not yet 20 when he first appeared as a featured performer on 78 RPM disks made in America in the late 1930s by the Uday Shankar Company of dancers and musicians. Ravi recorded frequently for HMV in India before making his debut album in the West: a London session first issued in 1956 by EMI as Ravi Shankar Plays Three Classical Ragas. The following year, he released his first U.S. LP, The Sounds of India, recorded in New York for Columbia with Miles Davis’ producer, George Avakian.
Shankar’s discography is vast and, for beginners, at once confusing in its size and easy to enter. He was a virtuoso with catholic tastes and a collaborative spirit: there is no wrong door into Shankar’s work. The Essential Ravi Shankar (Columbia/Legacy) is a good primer, a two-CD overview of four decades of raga and expansion. What follows is a subjective example of immersion: one Westerner’s love and study of a man with enormous gifts and sharing spirit, for whom excellence was a daily aspiration.
Improvisations (World Pacific, 1962) – Shankar’s long association, starting in the early Sixties, with Richard Bock and Jim Dickson and their Los Angeles-based studio and label, World Pacific, bore remarkable consequences. Dickson was also the original manager and producer of the Byrds, who discovered Shankar’s music through Dickson and, in turn, introduced it to a friend, George Harrison of the Beatles. Improvisations is a dynamic and comprehensive introduction to Shankar with a gorgeous side-long evening raga, “Raga Rageshri;” an example of Shankar’s composing for films and a piece, “Fire Night,” with a jazz quartet including flautist Bud Shank and future Keith Jarrett bassist Gary Peacock. For Shankar, fusion was already a work in progress.
Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pop Festival (World Pacific, 1967) – One of the most explosive moments in D.A. Pennembaker’s film, Monterey Pop, comes after the Who and Jimi Hendrix: the excerpt from Shankar’s elegant and blazing Sunday-afternoon set and the sudden, volcanic applause at the end, by a truly stunned audience. There are many live Shankar albums from the Sixties and early Seventies; this one preserves a generous portion of an extraordinary moment in his life – and rock’s expanding consciousness.
In Concert 1972 (Apple, 1972) – Shankar’s friendship with George Harrison led, inevitably, to releases on the Beatles’ Apple label. This wonderful recording comes from a show at New York’s Philharmonic Hall with a dream team: Ali Akbar Khan on sarod and Alla Rakha on tabla. One of the three pieces, “Raga – Manj Khamaj,” totals almost an hour, enabling you to get much closer than on most Shankar albums of the period, to the natural extension and patient exploration of an Indian classical-music evening. That raga was split over two sides on the original double-LP set. You can hear it as performed, a single track, on a recent CD reissue.
Passages, with Philip Glass (Private Music, 1990) – Shankar’s mid-Sixties recordings with the American violinist Yehudi Menuhin – the sitarist’s first major partnership with a Western classical musician – were commercial hits, as important to Shankar’s celebrity in the West as Harrison’s pop-star blessing. Shankar did not play sitar on this orchestral album. He and Glass composed and arranged this glistening hybrid of Hindustani classical music and Glass’ contemporary minimalism. It is easy, hypnotic listening – the latter’s see-saw phrases and long-note chorales threaded by Shankar’s gentle, melodic imagination, like a compact version of Einstein on the Beach warmed by sunrise on the Ganges.
Full Circle: Carnegie Hall 2000 (Angel, 2001) – The closest I got to Shankar’s genius was in the Nineties: a front-row-center seat at a concert in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House. He was in his seventies and leading a troupe that included his virtuoso daughter Anoushka, who often took the lead during the evening. But the elder Shankar also improvised with precision, brio and elation, over two long sets; to experience his facility, concentration and undiminished spirit, in such intimate context, was humbling nirvana. I return often to this recording, the closest thing I have to a souvenir from that era, with Anoushka. It is a now a reminder of a man – and magic – that will never leave us but which I can never see, that close, again.