Damian Draghici plays an instrument that doesn't have much connection with jazz--the panpipe. Nor does his background as a member of a family with a seven-generation history in Romanian music suggest much association with the music, either.
And, in fact, there was no bebop, no blues and no hard-swinging rhythm section in his appearance at the Skirball Cultural Center on Thursday night. Yet the spirit of jazz was present in much of what Draghici had to offer.
Leading a quartet that also included oud player Ara Dinkjian, guitarist Federico Ramos and South Indian percussionist Trichy Sankaran, he offered a set of music whose largely Romanian origins were invigorated by improvisations frequently touched with the drive and the rhythmic articulation associated with jazz.
What Jelly Roll Morton once described as the "Spanish tinge" in jazz now seems to have become an "American tinge" in world music.
Draghici actually opened his set with a pair of classical pieces--Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances and Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5--performed with the Riviera String Quartet. The setting provided an opportunity for him to display the extraordinarily sophisticated sounds he can generate from a very rudimentary instrument.
But his creative spirit came alive when he was joined by Dinkjian, Ramos and Sankaran. A few of the pieces they performed together--mostly originals or traditional numbers arranged by Draghici--showcased his astonishingly rapid technique (he actually played a range of panpipes, pitched from bass to soprano). Others featured the instrument's dark, mysterious qualities (remember its atmospheric presence in the score of "Picnic at Hanging Rock"?). In each case, his phrasing often had the flowing propulsion of a jazz saxophone solo. (One suspects that Draghici spent considerable time among the jazz players during his course of study at the Berklee College of Music.)
Each of his musical associates brought showcase skills of their own to the program. A lengthy solo by Sankaran brought the overflow crowd to its feet. And Ramos and Dinkjian added gorgeous sound and stirring rhythmic improvisations to a compelling and entertaining international musical composite.