Almost more than any other kind of music, jazz is a union of opposites. Rooted in tradition, it is forward-looking and constantly evolving. It has to come from the soul but speak to the mind. And jazz has long embraced East and West. From the time American jazz bands first visited India in the 1920s to the 1950s and 1960s when Indian musicians went to America—resulting in notable collaborations such as the one between Ravi Shankar and John Coltrane—jazz and traditional Indian music have been in dialogue.
What do they have in common? “Improvisation within structure,” summarises Neelamjit Dhillon, who is a jazz saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in tabla performance at the California Institute for the Arts. Both types of music call for the performer to improvise tunes while staying within the boundaries of a certain rhythm. “The grammar is different but the underlying principles are the same,” Dhillon clarifies.
Musicians who are “fluent” in one of these languages can gain a quick, albeit superficial grasp of how to communicate in the other: One reason that past attempts at fusing Indian classical music with jazz often sounded more mixed than married. (Shakti, a group which brought together English guitarist John McLaughlin, South Indian violinist L Shankar and Zakir Hussain on tabla in the 1970s, is named by most jazz musicians as the exception.)
Rudresh Mahanthappa: Following Curiosity
Number theory and cryptography fascinated alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa from an early age. His 2006 album ‘Codebook’—recorded with Iyer on piano—was an exercise in applying the concepts of encryption to jazz, while his latest, ‘Bird Calls’, scrambles motifs from classic Charlie “Yardbird” Parker tunes with elements of Carnatic music to create a kind of puzzle where listeners can play with the pieces. Mahanthappa, 44, avails himself of the full range of the saxophone, tripping from bass tones to high notes with a high level of energy.
Academically trained in the Western music tradition, he has also spent time in India apprenticing himself to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of Carnatic music in particular. “The greatest way of marrying Indian music and jazz is to break them down to their raw elements because that’s how you’ll get something new,” says Mahanthappa. But when it’s a question of the technicalities of bringing East and West together, “my initial reaction is that the music is secondary,” he says. “It really stems from this experience of figuring out who I am in this country.” In interviews, he has often spoken about the experience of “feeling white” growing up because there were very few other Indian-Americans around. It wasn’t until college that he began to engage with his heritage and weave it into his musical identity. Discovering the commonalities between classical Indian music and jazz, which he describes as “interaction and interplay, a sense of rhythmic propulsion at their core,” has been the code he has worked to crack ever since.
In 2009, Mahanthappa released an album called ‘Kinsmen’, co-led with Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. Other players in the Dakshini Ensemble, the group convened for the project, included violinist A Kanyakumari and Abbasi on the guitar and the hybrid sitar-guitar. Though one of his most successful projects, it posed a major challenge to Mahanthappa. “There’s blues and raga not only at the same time, but simultaneously, and everyone has to be aware of all the parts.” That challenge highlights one of the main differences between jazz and Indian classical music: The latter is entirely based on a standard repertory. “Whereas in jazz, writing your own music is more important—and more prevalent than ever,” he says. Mahanthappa continues to explore different kinds of music besides Indian classical, including contemporary Western classical, rock, singer-songwriter, and even children’s music (thanks to his two-year-old).
Rez Abbasi: Finding Freedom
Rez Abbasi, 49, was a guitarist by the time he was 11, and began playing in garage bands in his early teens. He idolised guitar-heavy rock groups like Rush and Van Halen. At 16, he discovered jazz and the creative possibilities that came with it. “Jazz is a verb, not a noun,” he says. “It’s just music that is calling out for newness, and since it’s an American music, the newness comes from outside America.”
In his case, the qawwalis and other music from Pakistan that were part of his environment while growing up became one of the main outside influences he brought to his own precise, yet relaxed, expression of jazz. On some recordings, such as his 2005 album ‘Snake Charmer’, he plays an appropriately winding sitar-guitar and also employs rhythmic elements from Indian music. He also frequently accompanies his wife, singer Kiran Ahluwalia, on traditional Indian compositions. But in some of his other work, such as the 2011 album ‘Suno Suno’— which also features Iyer and Mahanthappa—it’s more about incorporating a certain spirit of tradition, such as the collective improvisation of qawwalis.
(This story appears in the May-June 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)