Amirtha Kidambi Finds Catharsis on Elder Ones’ ‘From Untruth’

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Saxophonist Matt Nelson (left), drummer Max Jaffe, bassist Nick Dunston and vocalist/composer Amirtha Kidambi are releasing From Untruth (Northern Spy) under the name Elder Ones.

(Photo: Chris Weiss)

Amirtha Kidambi, a forward-thinking polymath whose reach extends into the worlds of composing, improvisation and voice, is sipping coffee at a Brooklyn cafe. It’s a minor miracle that the vocalist, who marries Indian classical music and the spiritual-jazz of John and Alice Coltrane to hair-raising effect, has even a minute to spare.

Apart from an upcoming date at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, with Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, an ensemble where she takes lead vocals, Kidambi completed a sold-out run of a Robert Ashley opera at New York performance space The Kitchen.

On top of all that, Kidambi also serves on faculty at The New School.

Prior to her gravitating to New York’s experimental music, avant-garde jazz and DIY rock scenes, where she became both force and fixture upon her arrival a decade ago, Kidambi grew up in California, where she studied classical music at a liberal arts school in Los Angeles. She found that scene fractured, though, and lacking a sense of community.

“Everybody I was checking out, musically, that I liked was based here,” she said about being drawn to New York. “In L.A., it was so diffuse, it was impossible to know what was happening there. It was very hard to find the community there. So, it was always obvious that I had to come here.”

While earning advanced degrees in ethnomusicology at Columbia University, and in voice and musicology at Brooklyn College, Kidambi was inspired by saxophonist and scholar Salim Washington, her advisor at that latter school, and the writings of George Lewis and Horace Tapscott that he assigned.

“It was an amazing class,” she recalled. “But I had not thought of myself contextually as a jazz musician.”

Since completing her masters at Brooklyn College in 2012, though, Kidambi’s shifted from the mode of thinking.

Encouraged by Washington to collaborate with other performers, she set out to dive deep into improvised music with likeminded players, and incorporating harmonium into her work was a crucial aesthetic advancement. But a turning point came after a conversation with the late visionary pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams.

“I had a really big moment, a conversation with Muhal once where he was like, ‘Well, you can’t just wait around and try to figure out what your music is before it happens. You just have to do stuff and then you realize this is what your music is. It will tell you,’” she recalled. “He had this philosophy of individualism, so it’s like, ‘What is your music?’ That just stuck with me.”

After that discussion, Kidambi was asked by saxophonist/composer Matana Roberts to perform at a 2015 benefit for the Michael Brown Memorial Fund, named for the African American teenager fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. With bassist Brandon Lopez and drummer Max Jaffe already in the fold for the benefit performance, compositions were coming together for Elder Ones, Kidambi’s first band as a leader. And the addition of soprano saxophonist Matt Nelson helped fully realize her vision for the ensemble.

“I’m really drawn to the sound of the soprano,” the bandleader said, “probably because of Coltrane and Pharaoh, and that era of free-jazz or spiritual free-jazz. That is a place I really gravitate towards.”

In 2016, Elder Ones channeled the meditative vibes mastered by the Coltranes and Sanders on its debut, Holy Science (Northern Spy), creating a singular hybrid of improvised music, drone and Carnatic music, as Kidambi’s bracing howls, gut-wrenching cries and whispers pirouetted atop the sounds of her harmonium.

“The first album was very much about finding my voice as a composer and a bandleader,” Kidambi said. “It was very early on in that process for me, and it’s a lot more drone-based and meditative. I was reading a lot of Hindu spiritual texts, but there’s still an angry political piece on there, ‘Dvapara Yuga (For Eric Garner).’ So, I was always thinking about music as a form of protest and social commentary.”

The second effort by Elder Ones, From Untruth (Northern Spy), is something apart: a screed on the current political and social climate, and the polar opposite of Holy Science’s dronescapes.

Amid a politically charged firestorm summoned by Nelson’s soprano squeals and anchored by the careening rhythm section of new bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Jaffe, Kidambi has solidified her voice on From Untruth. Differences between the pair of albums, including Kidambi’s Sun Ra-esque synthesizer-fueled splatter and her use of lyrics that don’t mince words, are readily apparent. And as the bandleader tells it, the new record’s aggressive nature was spawned during a 2016 Elder Ones tour.

“We had a show in Cleveland the night of the election, and it was so jarring and visceral and crazy,” Kidambi said. “Shortly after that, when I came back, I started writing pieces that were clearly like me thinking about, ‘How did we get to this point?’”

The uniquely composed ensemble and singular writing provide a distinct opportunity for Kidambi and her bandmates—and she hopes, for the audience as well.

“Playing in this band is such a release for me, and I want it not just to be a release for us in the band, but also when you play for people [for them] to experience that kind of catharsis of feeling, like some weight’s been lifted,” she said. “If I scream, then maybe you empathetically feel like I’m screaming for you, too, you know?” DB




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June 2019
Jeremy Pelt
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