Bitter experiences with Jazz Fusion

The world was celebrating international music day on the 21st of June. Someone procured passes for us to go to a fusion music concert happening in Shilpa Kala Vedika. Pt Ronu Mojumdar, Pt Bickram Ghosh and an array of instruments, from an electronic Veena to a Bollywood vocalist. There were two canadian Jazz Saxophonists, a keyboard player, a drummer to add to this mix of flute, veena and tabla. It sure looked intriguing.

Jazz and Indian music. The relationship goes back several decades in this century. The interests of many american performers who formed the story of jazz as we know it were piqued by similarities in Jazz and Indian classical music – the use of modality, the blending of a composer and a performer as an improviser. John Coltrane became very interested in Indian music and also wrote several pieces inspired by ragas in the early 60s. Later in the 70s with Shakti, John McLaughlin and others experimented with mixed modality, where independent styles could come together and share a piece of music. Louis Banks, with his reinterpretations of Miles Davis, and Indian sounds in Jazz writing was even nominated for a Grammy for his work.

Having said this, it makes me very sad to report the utter lack of study and practice that was this concert. Masters of a style cannot hop into another and expect themselves to excel at it. A part of being a great musician is to understand your limitations. If you have to reach out beyond what you’ve always been doing, you ought to learn about the new form first. The one thing that a musician must never appear to be – at least in front of an audience that pays to listen to you – is unprepared, and that is exactly what happened on this night. The performers had a setlist of about 3 songs, after which they even said, “ok. Now we’re just going to make something up on stage and play for you”. And they continued this unrehearsed fiasco for another hour and a half. Everyone could see their lack of preparation, and they made no attempts to hide it.

Although improvisation is about coming up with music on the spot, it’s not about the lack of structure. It’s not about pulling wool over everyone’s eyes. It is about an ensemble that creates one music. Not about trying to subdue other performers. It’s about enhancing other performers. Not trying to cut into their slice of sound and constantly try to seek attention. The only rainmaker was Pt Mojumdar, whose eccentric flute saved every song except for the tabla solo. The band very much lacked a leader who had an idea of what to do and how. There can’t be an ensemble performance without a vision. The Saxophone duo from Canada, the Kay brothers did a great job of playing their parts, although the overshadowing memories of the concert were senior performers trying to be in the limelight. Sowmya Raoh was introduced almost as something to look at on the stage, but as a singer, was caught off guard in all improvisation sections. Pulak Sarkar on the keyboard did his job, but Arun Kumar was a pleasure on the drums.

It is sad to see a concert where the performers bank on the general lack of musical education and awareness that has become a norm here in our country. The average audience only wants to be entertained. I feel that it is the duty of an educated, learned classical performers to show people the different ways to be entertained in, even if the way to do this starts from popular sensibility. It is a musician’s responsibility to share joy of music, lead people to understand what to listen for in a piece of music. To explore the sensitivities of the listeners instead of overconfidently churning out the crass regurgitations of old masters.

There is a German youth jazz orchestra by the name of Bujazzo that came to India last year and made music with Rama Mani, T A S Mani and others. They had an amazing conductor / arranger, Mike Herting had carefully planned the music and the sequence. He understood the delicate balance of the styles, and of excesses. They generated soulful music – a genuine experiment with two styles. Using for example, the rhythms of Carnatic music, with deceptive cadences, typical of Jazz. As a musical population, we have to understand that what sounds ‘jazzy’ doesn’t have to be jazz. We cannot be expected to carry on like this – learning nothing from Jazz, exploiting the freedom of jazz, and reinterpreting it without understanding it. There has to be methods in which systems interact with each other where the result is not chaos. One would think this progression will be a responsibility of learned professionals.

The philosophy of Indian music is about creating rasa, bhaava. The aim is not to be a rockstar and psych the audience, but be a messenger of music itself and move them. To take them on a journey and to make them feel. Not to show off but to use your skill as a device. The audience should be able to see through performers who use their skill to intimidate. We should, in the very least – realize when we’re not touched by the music. The coming together of musical styles is also the coming together of their ideologies. The pensive meditation of Indian music and the variability and the sheer good humor of Jazz.

I think the critical reception of music is where we are lacking. The educated audience that could tell the weaknesses of a classical singer, though they weren’t singers themselves – are an audience of the past. Music journalism in this country now, is about ‘Wah-waahi’. As long as someone is entertained, we really don’t bother to look into the musicality, the sensibility, and the subtlety of our own tradition. Four speeches – not one but four – that preceded the concert talked about how music brings everyone together and crosses boundaries. Is that all that we have to say about music? It entertains us and connects us? Have we stopped thinking critically if the son of a master is performing – have we stopped bothering to really listen if a big name is playing? We need more vocabulary here! Better ways of talking about music in an educated spirit.

I realize that the world we live in is about live telecasts. Television space is crowded and everyone wants a piece of attention. What i don’t understand is when performers would try to appeal to thousands of people flipping through channels lazily in their pajamas instead of the few hundred who payed and bothered to be at their concert in flesh and blood. I am reminded of an Aruna Sairam concert i had the great pleasure of attending, where she made the organizers switch on the lights in the auditorium so she could see the people she was communicating with. She wasn’t making youtube videos. She was singing for the people who had come to hear her. While the memories i’ll carry from last night are of Bickram Ghosh trying to tell the sound engineers what a bad job they were doing in the middle of a Veena solo. I’ll carry the memories of everyone trying to tell the sound engineers to increase their own volume. I’ll remember last night because the performers didn’t know how to conclude their pieces, and not because of overflowing content but because of an overflowing ego.

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2 thoughts on “Bitter experiences with Jazz Fusion

  1. Everyone hates critical judgement. If musician does that it’s also understandable. But to ride on the assumed lack of knowledge of audience will be suicidal to very nature of music. Now the problem is , there are not many people who are educated in music though everyone enjoys it, So the response you can get from them is whether they are entertained or not and that’s all you get not some critical evaluation. That’s upto the people who know music. I remember my Hindi teacher who used to say theater is dying people are not interested in it. Now the difference is between music and theater issue is the people still enjoys music though not educated in it. To survive one has to adapt, so then responsibility lies with front bearers of the music, as you said it “It is a musician’s responsibility to share joy of music, lead people to understand what to listen for in a piece of music”.

    btw does Pt. means Pandit.

    P.S – I am not educated in music in anyway.

  2. Musicologues says:

    Everyone’s hate for critical judgement in music reflects upon our view of music as a non academic non serious subject, which is in itself very sad, isn’t it?
    Thanks for your comment, and for thinking about it!

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