Jan. 19 2011 12:00 AM

Musical duo blurs East/West boundaries


When Elden Kelly and Bobby Bringi sit cross-legged near the front window at Mumbai Indian restaurant, they stir a piquant and elusive sauce.

Kelly plays a Glissentar, a guitar that snakes through the bendy notes and semitones of Indian music — or Delta blues, depending on his mood. Bringi thrums his fingers and palms on the mridangam, a cylindrical drum with a face on each end, like a hammerhead shark.

Their 2-month-old musical partnership is a swirl of converging elements. Bringi grew up in Mumbai, India, loving American jazz and blues. Kelly grew up in Vermont, but he’s deeply versed in Turkish and Indian music.

They exchange glances, nods and shrugs in a deceptively relaxed rapport. Tight focus gives their music the bones to wander the musical map, from Mumbai to Memphis.

“We try to open it up, take a journey and come back home,” Bringi said. “Every time you tell the story it’s going to come out different.”

The sounds lubricate your brain right away, but there’s structure under the bubbling beats and sinuous melody. The more you listen, the more you hear.

“We’re calling what we do modern global roots music," Bringi said. “What we’re trying to create is not ethnic music, but a synthesis, something that’s modern.”

Bringi came to East Lansing four years ago from Ithaca, N.Y., to work at a biotechnology firm. At about the same time, Kelly enrolled for a master’s degree at Michigan State University’s jazz studies program.

They met last fall at Jazz Thursdays at Mumbai, where Kelly regularly performs in various settings.

Defying easy labels or predictable paths, Kelly and Bringi are trying to slip past previous attempts to mix Indian and Western musical forms.

“I’ve always wanted to do something that was in an improvised style, but avoided the clichés of fusion music and New Age world music,” Kelly said.

“We’re kind of non-denominational,” Bringi cracked.

Bringi confesses to being “very, very underwhelmed” by jazz-Indian fusion efforts of the past, no matter how much he admires the artists involved.

From Ravi Shankar’s groundbreaking collaborations in the 1960s to the recent work of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, few musicians have combined East and West in a way that satisfied him.

“It’s always been weighted one way or the other,” he said. “Ravi Shankar might have been co-opting some elements from somewhere else, but he was trying to play Indian classical music.”

By contrast, a recent wave of Indian-influenced jazzmen like Iyer, Sameer Gupta and Rudresh Mahanthappa pretty much stick to the other side of the equation.

“I just hear jazz, with a different individualistic sensibility,” Bringi said.

A rare exception, Bringi said, is the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which is loosely based on an Indian raga, “Bag Eshri.”

“The sound of the sitar is the least of it,” Bringi said. “It’s the actual melody. I think they captured a little bit of ‘Bag Eshri’ in there, but in a beautiful way, so it’s integral to the song.”

Unsurprisingly, “Norwegian Wood” often pops up when Bringi and Kelly get together, along with a growing body of original compositions by both men. John Coltrane’s ballad “Naima” is another favorite.

“Coltrane was influenced by Indian music,” Kelly said. “The chords of ‘Naima’ are based on one note, like a drone, and we were able to adapt that. It was like re- Indianizing it.”

At the New England Conservatory of Music, Kelly studied the Turkish musical system, in which there are nine distinct notes between two white keys on a Western piano.

He also took lessons from the foremost American sitar guru, Peter Row, learning the ragas and rhythmic cycles of Indian music.

American traditions, like bluegrass and Delta blues, use microtones, too. Kelly delights in blurring these cultural lines, calling his guitar style “Indo-Turkish bluegrass.”

Bringi is awed by Kelly’s talent, putting him in the same class as John Scofield and Bill Frisell, two of his favorite jazzmen.

Bringi is modest about his own skills.

Indian classical music, he said, is a rigorous discipline that takes a lifetime to master.

“I’m self-taught on percussion,” he said. “I’m an imposter as a drummer. I try to coopt this ancient instrument to make cool music. I like the sound of it.”

Kelly had a quick response to that. "He’s certainly not an impostor,” he said. “He doesn’t think of himself as foramally trained, but he’s very knowledgeable about Indian music. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of hundreds of ragas.”

In addition to mrandingam, Bringi also plays guitar, which makes him sensitive to Kelly’s side of the fence. “He values groove and feel,” Kelly said. “And if the music feels right, it’s always right, in my opinion.”

Bringi’s enthusiasm for the project has also inspired Kelly to write and play more music.

“Bobby is definitely tapped into infinite energy,” Kelly said. “When you’re tapped into the creative source, there is no limit.”

Elden Kelly and Bobby Bringi

7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 22 Mumbai Indian Restaurant 340 Albert Ave., East Lansing (517) 336-4150 www.mumbaicuisine.com