Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – ‘Navarasa: Nine Emotions’ review: a ground-breaking vision

The latest from James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Kahn takes on the Herculean task of expressing the scope of human emotion

‘Navarasa: Nine Emotions’ is James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan’s third album in four years, and by now their mix of Yorkston’s gentle folk, Thorne’s driving jazz and Khan’s once-in-a-generation mastery of the sarangi – a bowed string instrument said to mimic the human voice– is well-established in certain circles. When they first released music in 2016 they broke genuinely new ground, but their third album together proves they’d only scratched the surface of what’s out there to explore.

The new album is based on the titular ‘Navarasa’, an ancient principle that there are nine emotions that together represent the scope of human expression, and each of the record’s songs corresponds to one of them – for example Shringara (love), Karuna (sorrow), Veera (courage) or Adbutha (wonder). The record swings vastly from one tone to another; it can leap beautifully upwards one moment then plunge deep into a pit of gloom the next. However, those swings never feel violent or jarring; they allow each of the three musicians to properly show off the reach of their talent, and to create an album that’s often breath-taking in its scope.

Yorkston draws often on traditional Scottish poetry and songs, inhabiting their beauty and their wildness. Kahn is majestic as a singer and a player, weaving labyrinthine melodies that are sometimes blissfully light, sometimes crushingly dark. Thorne’s role is the most understated, yet often the most important. His earthy, resonant bass invokes subtle shifts in momentum, the record’s guiding force on its winding journey.

There is always some element of interaction between these distinct voices, however. On ‘Twa Brothers’, Yorkston sings the tragic Scottish ballad of the same name, his voice cracked and mournful, while Kahn backs him with a twisting vocal percussion that intensifies its sense of sorrow. On ‘North Carr’, meanwhile, the three combine to create something wholly beautiful, an epic sweep of music where Yorkston’s guitar and Kahn’s sarangi flutter and weave around each other like two kites soaring on the wind.

In the past, Yorkston/Thorne/Kahn’s only failing was that their different styles could act like oil and water, never quite blending into a satisfying whole, but ‘Navarasa’ creates a marriage that feels full and complete. Nowhere is this clearer than on ‘Westlin Winds’, another of the album’s peaks. The song begins with a gentle thrust of double bass, plucks of guitar and a distant drone of sarangi, with Kahn spinning a sublime vocal melody inspired by qawwali – Muslim devotional chants – and the work of revered Hindustani poet-philospher-musician Hazrat Amir Khusrau.

The music develops, gradually growing in its elegance, until further down the path Yorkston takes over, singing the baleful words of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns. The song finds a path across the globe from one visionary figure to another, the peak of a record that is somewhat visionary itself.


Navarasa Nine Emotions Cover

Release Date: January 24
Record Label: Domino Records