Lost masterpieces of jazz-gamelan fusion resurface

One of my favorite musical genres is characterized by daring rhythmic complexity and an ethic of competition among top players, and has its origins in folk traditions but underwent a surge of innovation and modernization during the 1920s. My other favorite musical genre is jazz; I’m talking of course about the gamelan music of Indonesia, particularly Bali.

Jazz and gamelan do have some things in common, as I suggested, but it’s still true the genres are not particularly close. Yet right-thinking people enjoy them both, and there have been occasional attempts to bring them together. I just discovered that the famed German record label MPS has made its back catalog available digitally this year; among many other things, this means that two classic works that fuse jazz and gamelan are now readily available again.

The first is Don Cherry’s wonderful Eternal Rhythm, a long multi-themed suite of the sort he explored after leaving Ornette Coleman’s group. Cherry plays a few gamelan instruments, as well as flute and trumpet, on this 1968 concert recording. The late, great Sonny Sharrock makes an appearance with his crashing electric guitar, along with some other jazz giants, and the whole thing is generally wonderful. This period in jazz produced a lot of useless noodling but this is a masterpiece that seems to point the way to a whole new genre of music.

Next up is a new discovery for me, a session the great clarinetist Tony Scott recorded in 1967 with some Indonesian jazz musicians. On Djanger Bali the fusion strategy is different: rather than putting gamelan instruments into a jazz context, a traditional jazz quintet plays gamelan-inspired themes. The session also includes a couple of straight jazz tracks which are not as interesting, so overall the impact is not as deep as Eternal Rhythm, but it’s still a worthwhile listen.

Another great piece of jazz-gamelan fusion is Merapi, a 1996 album that has sadly not resurfaced and is not easily obtainable in physical or digital form. It features the saxophonist Andre Jaume and guitarist Rémi Charmasson playing alongside a full gamelan orchestra–yet a third strategy for merging the two traditions. There’s a lot more of the real gamelan sound here, and I think this is the most ambitious fusion attempt of the three. Again I am surprised that there have not been dozens more sessions exploring the sonic possibilities this collaboration reveals.

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