Exclusive Interview with George Brooks

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George Brooks: Bridges between jazz and Indian classical music

American saxophonist and composer George Brooks was in Bangalore this week as part of the star-studded lineup in the concert series “Splendour of Masters.” I was fortunate to catch up with him for an interview the day after the concert.

Organised by Mumbai-based Banyan Tree Events, the concert tour lineup this year included Ustad Shujaat Khan (sitar – Hindustani), Ganesh-Kumaresh (violin – Carnatic), Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam – Carnatic), Satish Kumar (mridangam), Amit Choubey (tabla) and Ojas Adhiya (percussion).

A prominent American voice in Indian jazz fusion, George Brooks has performed with jazz and blues greats John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Etta James, Kronos Quartet, Anthony Braxton, Albert Collins, Roy Rogers and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.

George has been hailed for building solid collaborative bridges between the improvisational art of Indian classical music with jazz, America’s  own classical music. He has collaborated with the who’s who of Indian Hindustani and Carnatic classical music: Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Kala Ramnath, U.Srinivas, Ronu Majumdar, Vikku Vinayakram, A. Sivamani, Shankar Mahadevan and L. Subramanium.

He has founded a number of Indo-jazz fusion ensembles including Summit (with Fareed Haque, Kai Eckhardt, Zakir Hussain, Steve Smith), Bombay Jazz (with Larry Coryell, Ronu Majumdar) and the Kirwani Quartet (with Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink and Hariprasad Chaurasia).

In addition to frequent tours in the US and India, George Brooks tours with Asian Underground innovator Talvin Singh in Europe and the UK. In 2007, George received the American Composers Forum “Global Harmony Prize.” Saxophone Journal rated one of his albums as “one of the most exciting saxophone records,” and San Francisco Bay Guardian complimented it for “bristling with East meets West polytonality and rhythmic intrigue.”

His Website (http://www.georgebrooks.com) has an extensive list of his concerts and albums; the site even has his blog, but one wishes it were more frequently updated! George Brooks joins us in this exclusive interview for Jazzuality, sharing with us his musical journey, anecdotes from performances, and his joy of cross-cultural musical collaboration.

How did you begin your journey into jazz?
Though my family was not musical – my father is a radio journalist and my mother an educator – I always liked music and played in the school band when I was ten years old. Entirely on a whim, I picked up the saxophone!

At 14, I moved on from the ‘Beatles phase’ into jazz, which I was introduced to by a friend. I grew up in New York city, and would pretend to be an 18-year old so I could get entry into the jazz bars and clubs, especially the Village Vanguard! My heroes from those days were Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans; John Coltrane had already passed away by then.

Though I thought of becoming a doctor, my experience with playing with bands in upstate New York made me decide upon a full-time career in jazz. My early musical studies were with saxophonist and arranger Frank Foster, and then carried on more formally with a degree from the New England Conservatory of Music.

When did your journey into Indian classical music begin?
It was during a musicology course in college that I first heard Indian classical music. That was the ‘light going off in my head’ moment, or ‘hammer hitting me on the head’ moment! I was very impressed with the music, and intrigued by the way it made me feel.

So by the time I discovered Indian classical music, I was quite ‘old’ by the standards of many Indian classical musicians who begin at a young age in a family of musicians. For instance, the brothers Ganesh-Kumaresh must have had a 100 public performances by the time they were 10 years old!

I have come to like the way I can search for myself through Indian classical music. I moved to California, which was the best place in the US to explore Indian classical music thanks to musicians like Zakir Hussain and Ali Akbar Khan who set up music institutes there.

Then in the1980s I went on two extended trips to India where I studied with master vocalist Pandit Pran Nath in Delhi. I immersed myself in the language, music and culture of north India; I speak some Hindi as well. I learned about Indian educational traditions like guru seva.

I also performed with sitarist Krishna Bhatt. My debut CD as a composer was Lasting Impressions, in 1996, with Zakir Hussain and Krishna Bhatt. This was followed by Night Spinner and Summit.

Getting Zakir Hussain’s stamp of approval through these recordings and tours helped open a lot of doors for me in India and around the world. I was able to collaborate with musicians such as Ashish Khan, Sultan Khan, Vikku Vinayakram, and Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Did you explore other forms of jazz like Latin as well?
I have not done as much with Latin jazz as I would have liked to do. I am not comfortable with playing the flute, and you often need to double with flute and sax for Latin jazz. Though of course I love salsa and Cuban music; my college roommate’s main force was salsa and I went to Puerto Rico a few times. So Latin flavours of jazz have been in my ears, but I have not done much with them.

What other forms of collaboration have you explored?
In my earlier album with Carnatic vocalist Kala Ramnath I have explored chamber music, along with Gwyneth Wentink on harp.

What were some unusual creative experiences during your performance last night?
I played with different moods and notes during the piece which I composed in honour of pianist McCoy Tyner. I dedicated the song yesterday to my father, who has just turned 85. I was startled at the way it unfolded – I found myself actually playing a phrase from an earlier piece which I had dedicated to my father when he turned 75! No one would have known this but me. I am surprised at how much of a role the unknown plays in what we do.

And then I liked how Ustad Shujaat Khan picked up the piece from there, and others joined in. Each such performance is unscripted and improvised, and it surprises and delights us musicians as much as the audience!

Where would you describe yourself in your journey into Carnatic music?
I am familiarising myself with the structures of Carnatic music and forms such as Ragam Thanam Pallavi. But I need to learn more about the great composers, the elaborate ornamentations, and the elegance and aesthetics of the compositions. Yes, I still have a lot to learn!

How deep is the Indian influence in your jazz albums and performances today?
There are certainly jazz harmonics and influences of the blues in my other jazz albums, but the Indian threads are always in there somewhere! I can’t do without the Indian influence today; an average jazz listener in the US may not get it, but an Indian listener would immediately notice the Indian touch in my music.

Do you have any favourite ragas?
That is like asking who is the favourite among my three children!

What are some of the memorable highlights and anecdotes of your performances in India?
There have been so many. Each trip I take to India offers amazing opportunities. One that stands out is an evening of Sufi music that I performed with Sultan Khan for the Mumbai Festival a few years back. Khan sahib had formed a large ensemble with members of his family, along with musicians from Persia and several Rajasthani folk  musicians. We performed outdoors at the Gateway of India, facing the Taj Hotel with a stunning full moon in the sky. It was an event that could only have happened in India.

Another highlight was performing with Zakir Hussain, Louiz Banks and John McLaughlin in the early morning for that year’s “Homage to Abbaji”, a concert that Zakir organizes each year to honor his father’s memory. At 6 in the morning 2,500 musicians and music lovers gather in Shanmukhananda Hall to honor Allah Rakha. I have not experienced that level of musical reverence anywhere else in the world. This year my performances with Shujaat Khan and Ganesh-Kumaresh and last year’s tour with Hariprasad Chaurasia and Gwyneth Wentink were both remarkable. Equally magical moments also occur off stage. During my first trips to India in the early 80s simply sitting with my Guruji (Pandit Pran Nath) for riyaz at 4:30 in the morning or travelling with him to Shirdi for darshan were life-changing experiences.

What are some of your impressions of India as a country and culture — juggling culture with modernity? What is at risk in terms of being lost or swallowed up in globalisation?
India is such a vast country and I only get to see snippets of Indian life when I travel these days, but in the big cities where I tend to perform I am impressed by how fast the pace of life has become and how that pace continues to increase. The luxury of time that is required for real guru shisha parampara is hard to find these days and I do worry about what might be lost in the music when audiences lose the patience to enjoy a full alaap.

Do you ‘tune’ your saxophone differently for Indian scales?
One doesn’t tune a saxophone the way one tunes a stringed instrument. Each note is tuned in the moment through a relationship between the ear, the breath and many subtle muscle movements in the mouth, lips, larynx etc. So I must tune my ears, spirit and intellect to perform with classical musicians and when I am fortunate my saxophone responds accordingly.

Have you tried playing any Indian instruments, eg. shehnai? What has been your experience with this?
I am a huge fan of Bismillah Khan and I would like to make a serious attempt to play the shehnai one day. But the shehnai (and nagaswaram) reeds that I have seen are very thick and appear quite difficult to blow. Perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to do some proper study.

Have you played with Kadri Gopalnath or other Indian musicians on the saxophone?
Surprisingly I have not yet crossed paths with Kadriji. But I look forward to having the opportunity to sit with him and learn something about his approach to the saxophone and music.

Who are some other notable Western wind instrumentalists who have played Indian style, eg. on trumpet, flute?
Charlie Mariano was one of the first saxophonists who put a lot of energy into studying carnatic music and collaborating with Indian musicians. Jan Gabarek is another saxophonist who has had some interesting and successful collaborations. Rudresh Mahenthappa is an American born saxophonist of Indian parents who is taking a rather unique path exploring his relationship to jazz and Carnatic music. Ned McGowan is an American flautist and composer living in the Netherlands who has also immersed himself in Carnatic music. And I am sure there are many others. The music of India has had a powerful effect on Western musicians for quite some time.

What is your message to the audience during your musical journeys?
As an artiste, I want to keep growing as a musician, to awaken myself in different ways, to keep challenging myself. I have two messages to my audiences: one is to support the arts and artistes, and their importance to the world. In an age when the only god to worship seems to be money, it is important to pay tribute to our cultural traditions and richness too.

The second message is reach out to those who think and feel and worship differently. Embrace differences, expose yourself to change. We need to grow the human race as a community.

Interviewed by Madanmohan Rao on January 27, Bangalore
Editor & DJ; World music & Jazz
Global Correspondent for Jazzuality.com

Photos by Irene Young, taken from George Brooks’ official website

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