Neelamjit Dhillon Quartet's Komagata Maru has a somber beauty

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Neelamjit Dhillon Quartet
Komagata Maru (Independent)

It’s a sombre kind of beauty, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

Listened to simply as music, divorced from the sociopolitical context that surrounds it, Neelamjit Dhillon’s Komagata Maru is a gorgeous exploration of South Asian–inflected jazz, marked by the warmth and drive, respectively, of the leader’s bansuri flute and tabla. André Lachance’s ostinato bass lines, Dan Gaucher’s ringing cymbals, and Chris Gestrin’s modal piano will remind some listeners of what Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and McCoy Tyner brought to John Coltrane’s classic quartet; when he turns to the saxophone, Dhillon plays alto rather than tenor, but he too owes a debt to the spiritual master of ’60s jazz.

Just as Coltrane’s greatest recordings are best considered through the lens of the civil-rights movement, Dhillon’s debut as a leader gains even more resonance when heard in its intended historical context. The 69-minute suite is an attempt to depict, in sound, the feelings of the 376 men, mostly Punjabi Sikhs, who steamed into Vancouver’s harbour on the Komagata Maru 100 years ago, only to be denied entry to Canada and then forced back across the Pacific to an uncertain future. It’s also an attempt to confront—and perhaps exorcise—the discrimination that still simmers under Canada’s civil surface, occasionally emerging to scar immigrants, First Nations, sexual nonconformists, and the poor.

The effectiveness of Dhillon’s project will be hard to quantify. But Komagata Maru is an aesthetic triumph, a taut and sustained sonic meditation that successfully avoids the polemical. That’s an approach best realized when music carries its moral authority inside its sound, and such is the case here: all four musicians play with one heart, and their collective strength is both impressive and inspiring.

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