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Jazz in a land of improvisation

Frank Dubie, Louis Banks, Trilok Gurtu and Amit Heri stand out in a long line of Indians playing jazz. A millennium update on jazz in India

One way of defining jazz would be to call it Afro-American folk music with improvisation. Or better still, since modern jazz took in music from cultures all over the world and added improvisation to them, jazz could be any folk music with improvisation. The difficulty with this definition would be the absurd conclusion that Indian classical music is jazz!

Of course, not only is Indian classical music not jazz, but it has also proved fairly resistant to fusion with jazz -- unlike the folk music of Cuba, Brazil, South Africa, or even Azerbaijan. Yet if you hear the music of Trilok Gurtu (for instance in the Times Music album The Glimpse), you could think that fusing jazz and Indian classical music is the most natural and easy thing to do. Trilok Gurtu has also collaborated with the eclectic guitarist John McLaughlin, who plays both jazz-rock fusion and Indo-jazz fusion, the latter in collaboration with other percussionists such as Vikku Vinayakram on ghatam.

Trilok Gurtu, drummer Gurtu plays a range of percussion instruments, including tabla and the conventional jazz drums, often in the same piece, showing that it is possible to render compound Indian classical rhythms on drums. He also combines effectively with both Indian (e.g., veena) and Western (trumpet, piano, guitar, bass) instrumentalists as well as with vocalisation of Indian rhythms. He is certainly the most famous, perhaps also the most successful, exponent of Indo-jazz fusion.

But jazz in India is not all Indo-jazz fusion. Indeed, since from the '30s to the '50s jazz and Western pop music were rather close together, many veteran Western pop musicians and dance bands from the late colonial period devoted themselves to jazz. The most famous of them was perhaps Louis Banks, to whom I'll come in a moment since he has evolved with the times, but let's first consider Frank Dubier.

When I heard him at Bangalore's Oberoi some years ago, Dubier was leading a classic (but smallish) swing jazz band based in Madras, largely in that city's Anglo-Indian community. He's a trumpeter (also a soprano sax and flute player) with good swing timing, taking the lead in solos but leaving enough room for his digital keyboard player, bassist, drummer and other instrumentalists to solo as well. The band had a regular female singer, who joined in some numbers but inexplicably missed out (or was left out of) several jazz classics such as Summertime and C-jam blues (aka Duke's place in its vocal version). Like most classic jazz singers she didn't do any improvising. Dubier's repertoire covered jazz standards, especially those associated with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, such as Take the 'A' train, Caravan, Basin Street blues and Mack the knife.

Louis Banks, pianist (and now keyboardist) is a second generation jazzman, his father having brought him up in Calcutta to follow in his footsteps. In the hoary days of music in Calcutta's restaurant scene, he used to play regularly, along with a singer called Pam Crain. Power cuts in the '60s forced him to flee to Bombay, where the market was not as lively. He soldiered on regardless, using ad jingles and other non-jazz work for a livelihood. Over the years he has reinvented himself, always keeping himself at the cutting edge of jazz, both in technique and in genre.

In genre, he has more than flirted with jazz-rock (or jazz-pop) fusion, turning out a somewhat uneven album called The Call of the Mermaid. He seems to be more happy with mainstream jazz, though, basically be-bop and hard bop, when he's not working with Indian classical musicians and trying to achieve a Sangam (also the name of one group he assembled for the purpose) of jazz and Indian music. A concert he gave at the Country Club in Bangalore in late 1994 represented the mainstream side of his work. On that occasion he had Pam Crain with him, as well as the young guitarist Amit Heri native to Bangalore. Although both Heri and the bass guitarist, Karl Peters (who works with many bandleaders), play electric instruments, as does Banks for the most part, there was little jazz-rock influence, something historically associated with electric instruments and electronic gimmicks. This was an occasion when Banks's experiments in technique were on show, since he set his digital keyboards to mimic a range of instruments apart from acoustic piano, notably the trumpet sound essential to the theme of Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunisia. He also does a decent job of flute and (electric) jazz organ on his keyboards and often stacks an array of keyboards each set to a different instrument sound so that he can switch from one to another with facility.

In his group Sangam he joined his basic jazz ensemble with a veteran American alto saxophonist called Charlie Mariano (himself interested in Indian classical music) and the Karnataka College of Percussion, Bangalore. The results are a mix of jazz compositions on which the KCP musicians come in with Karnatik interpretations and Karnatik numbers on which the jazzmen contribute a jazz styling. Both Banks and Mariano also introduce Indian elements such as smooth transitions between notes into their playing on such numbers. Banks was in excellent form (and incidentally also played grand piano) but Mariano himself sounded a bit tired in early 1994 when I heard Sangam in Bangalore.

Yet age could not have been the problem with Mariano on that occasion. He proved that four years later when he came together with Amit Heri and the KCP ensemble in a concert similar in format to the 1994 Banks-Mariano-KCP performance. Not only was Mariano in good form then, but so was Heri, whom I'd thought somewhat reticent twice in 1994 - at the Banks concert and earlier when he came to Bangalore with four other young musicians from the Berklee College of Music in Boston in a group called Monochrome. Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax and Lester Menezes on digital keyboards, the other two Indian members of the group, as well as Matt Renzi on tenor and soprano sax took most of the solos on that occasion.

Amit Heri Heri was playing mainstream jazz in those days, but both he and Mariano are now into a fair proportion of fusion with Indian classical music. They have played at jazz festivals in Europe and come out with an album called Bangalore. Another CD of Amit with many members of Monochrome is coming out soon. Both albums are influenced by Indian music. Amit has been working and studying with the KCP, and the resulting Indian element is perhaps the most notable feature in his current work, besides the greater room for his own improvising.

He performed at the Alliance Francaise in Bangalore on Wednesday, January 5, 2000, along with another young Indian guitarist, Sanjay Divecha.


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