I am uncertain of how it happens. I am not even sure I have a theory about it. Snippets. Glimpses. Glances. Tiny ethereal dances.
What is a melody?
Where do they come from?
And how can Jai Uttal be so connected to the source of melodies that their genesises seem so organic and self-evident?
His melodies are simply correct. Correct, luscious, mellifluous and delicious. Correct, luscious, mellifluous and delicious is how I would describe the melodies, harmonies and tones that Jai Uttal pulls down from the ethers. And his new CD “Let Me Burn” is replete with musical hooks. Since I first heard it I feel like a trout trying to wiggle from their grasps but to no avail. Every time I think I am free I catch myself humming “Sri Ram Jaya Ram Jaya Jaya Ram” or “HARE KRISHNA HARE KRISHNA KRISHNA KRISHNA HARE HARE HARE RAMA HARE RAMA RAMA RAMA HARE HARE.”
“Campfire Sri Ram” featuring Deva Premal & Miten is a genre-bending masterpiece. When I hear it I think, “If Carlos Santana played Hindu chants he would be Jai Uttal.” And the seamless layering of Sunniva Brynnel’s accordion and Jeff Cressman’s trombone adds a childlike playfulness that makes the song burst with aliveness.
About “Ladder of Longing” Jai says, “Upon reaching Mt. Sinai, the light was fading and the patriarch, Jacob, lay down to sleep. Putting a rock under his head, the ancient holy man rested and offered his consciousness to the divine spirit. In his dream state, Jacob saw a ladder connecting Earth to Heaven, and climbing up and down this ladder were angels of all types, sizes and energies. Descending the ladder were angels of compassion, bodhisattvas, who left the bliss of God’s presence to come to help the many souls lost in suffering and illusion. Ascending the mystical ladder were the angels of salvation, helping and encouraging the souls desperately struggling to reach the realms of purity and light. Singing the holy names, we sense a bejeweled ladder, shimmering with colors, calling us to climb its rungs of light. At first we shyly step up to the first rung, not sure if we are ready to take the step. But then our hearts break with love and longing, and we simply climb and climb, our passionate yearning expanding along with our ever increasing love. This is the Ladder of Longing!”
The title track features Manose and was composed for a theatrical opera based on the Ramayana, entitled “Sita Ram.” Co-written with David Kersnar of the Lookingglass Theater and performed with the Chicago Children’s Choir, after recently spending a riveting evening with Kamasi Washington, I can attest that the syncopation and modulation of “Let Me Burn” are unparalleled.
While completing my graduate degree in religious studies I fell in love with the Upanisads; so “Asatoma” featuring Lucía Lilakoi was particularly poignant and poetic for me. The text of the mantra is:
asato mā sadgamaya
tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
mṛtyor mā’mṛtaṃ gamaya
Which translates to:
From the unreal lead me to the real
From darkness lead me to the light
From death lead me to immortality
Written circa 700 BCE, the Asatoma is a treatise on the Atman — the higher Self or what we think of as our soul. Thousands of years later Jai has rejuvenated this plea to extricate us from the suffering of mundane existence and transmuted it into a succulent lullaby.
Speaking of lullabies… “After the Fire (Shiva’s Lullaby)” is the perfect finale to this symphony as it lulls the listener into a farewell — fare-thee-well — trance.
“Let Me Burn” is aflame with so many lyrical collaborations. Jai says, “I started working with people on these songs without really knowing what I was going to do with them. And my wife said, ‘Why not release these songs as an album in celebration of your 70th birthday on June 12? This birthday is a major milestone. So let’s mark it.’” It may be Jai’s birthday but we are the beneficiaries of the gifts of his 21st truly original, eclectic and iconic album.
I refer to “Let Me Burn” as the Best Jai Album of the Year not because Jai has issued multiple albums in 2021; I refer to “Let Me Burn” as the Best “Jai” Album of the Year because the only reason Jai Uttal has not hitherto won a Grammy Award is because Jai is his own genre. His music does not fall into the categories of rock, pop, country, gospel — not even global music — and he may not win a Grammy because his music is its own genre: Jai Music.