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Liner notes for Braz Gonsalves’ Devapriya

A few months ago, I received a request from the excellent Florian Pittner, who runs Hindustani Vinyl, the online record store that with the best collection of classic Indian and Pakistani pop you could ever hope to find. He and his friends at Ovular Records wanted to compile a bunch of Braz Gonsalves 45s as a 10-inch record, he said. Would I write the liner notes? How could I resist the offer?

The disc arrived in the mail this morning. Here, for what it’s worth, is the text on the back.


One freezing day in 1982, as Braz Gonsalves was making his way to a store in Munich, he went into a panic as he found himself skidding across a strip of black ice. He landed hard on the pavement, breaking his hand. Gonsalves began to cry bitterly. “In that moment, my conscience came out,” he said. All the transgressions he had ever committed flashed through his mind. He knelt down and began to pray. “Father, I’ve sinned against you and against heaven,” he sobbed. “Forgive me Father, forgive me.”
With that, India’s most innovative saxophonist effected an abrupt key change. Gonsalves gave up a 25-year career playing jazz and found solace in a Catholic prayer group, emerging only rarely to perform the American music genre that he had worked hard to give a specifically Indian form.

The reed player exited the stage when he was at the height of his powers. Though much of his career had been spent in India, he seemed to be on the cusp of international recognition. In fact, when he took his unfortunate toss on the ice, Gonsalves (b February 3, 1934) was in Europe to lay down the tracks for an album by the group Sangam. When it was released in 1983, Citylife would go on to gain a cult following. To jazz obsessives, it was the most seamless melding of South Indian Carnatic music with jazz that had yet been recorded. That wasn’t surprising. Gonsalves had been playing jazz in an Indian way for at least two decades by then.

Devapriya – which draws together tracks from several 45s and EPs that Gonsalves cut between 1970 and 1972 – refutes a misconception contained in many standard jazz history books. Most fans have been led to believe that John Coltrane in the mid-1960s was the first person to integrate elements of Indian music into jazz. In reality, such innovations had been underway in India for at least a decade before Coltrane began to study raga theory. Indian jazz musicians in Bombay had been inflecting their melodies with Hindustani touches since at least the mid-1940s, both in the concert hall and in tunes they recorded for Hindi film soundtracks.
Gonsalves, though, took those efforts to yet another level. A native of Goa, the territory in western India that was a Portuguese colony for 451 years until 1961, Gonsalves grew up studying Western classical music in his parish school. Curiously, his first job was in a circus band. But his talent was too enormous to be contained by a canvas tent and he was soon leading bands in prominent nightclubs in Bombay and Calcutta. He played tenor, alto and soprano saxophones (and sometimes the flute), earning gained the reputation for being India’s most accomplished reed player: his phrasing was impeccable, his improvisations startlingly inventive. One fan from the time wrote of Gonsalves’s music “rearing and swaying and striking like a serpent”. Another went into raptures about his “improvised jag…fuddled and wild”.
Gonsalves is best remembered for his quintet at Bombay’s Astoria Hotel in the mid-1960s and various formations in Calcutta in which he participated in the next decade, along with the pianist Louis Banks and the singer Pam Crain. These bands played a mixture of styles: post-bop, soul, funk and raga-based jazz. But because India’s recording industry was focussed on film music, very little of Gonsalves’s work from that time was actually preserved on wax. The tunes on the 45s he cut were probably picked as much for their commercial appeal as much for the creativity they display. Despite this, they present a glimpse of dynamism and originality that characterised the Indian jazz scene in the 1960s – and of the abundant talents of Gonsalves.
Jazz and gospel have long shared the same pew, so Gonsalves decision to devote himself to religious music may not be so unusual after all. In fact, a clue to his future may have been contained in the title of the track that headlines this collection: Devapriya – a Sanskrit word that means Beloved of God.


Jehangir Dalal talks about his friend, Sonny Rollins

The excellent Jehangir Dalal, without whose generosity Foxtrot would not have been written, has been a friend of the colossal saxophonist Sonny Rollins for more than five decades. He recounts their association in this heartwarming video.

Asha Puthli Cuts Loose

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Mumbai in 2006.

Asha Puthli has a somewhat unorthodox relationship with time. When she’s asked about her age, for instance, the pop diva has often been known to declare, “I’m 6,000 years spiritually, I’m mentally 98, I emotionally five and chronologically in between.”

That unconventional sense of temporality has decisively defined the Mumbai-born musician’s 35-year-long career. Puthli first gained international attention in 1971 performing jazz – a form that encourages musicians to play with rhythm, to glide on top or below the beat rather than hitting it predictably in the middle. Her sultry vocals on avant garde jazz musician Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction album that year earned her the prestigious Downbeat critics poll award alongside Ella Fitzgerald.

L Shankar shouts the blues

(This is the second part of the BBC documentary Bombay and Jazz. I wrote about the first part last fortnight here.)

Quite improbably, the maestro mispronounces his own name. “Hi,” he calls in an accent that emerges from the interstice between Mylapore and Miami. “I’m Shank-er.”

Jazz, that expression of iconoclastic individualism, is a lifelong quest for your own voice. Jazzmen are obsessed with finding a distinctive way to parse a phrase, with creating a characteristic way to sail just over the beat or under it, with blowing out notes in a tone that’s so unique the music proclaims: Behold, it is I.

Improvisational musician L. Shankar found the song of his soul early. The son of violinist V. Lakshminarayana Iyer, Shankar was a child prodigy. He started vocal lessons at two, began violin at five and gave his first concert at seven. In 1975, aged 25, he co-founded Shakti with British guitar player John McLaughlin and tabla legend Zakir Hussain. Even if its three albums didn’t quite set the global charts afire, Shakti was a raging critical success. Shankar’s compositions were hailed for their maturity, for their assurance, for how effortlessly they projected his very own voice.

Unfortunately, he’s been stuttering in the Babel tower ever since.

Sax adventures in South India

Despite the perception that it is a staid, uncompromising form, Carnatic classical music has been remarkably adventurous about incorporating new instruments into its fold. The violin seems to have made its appearance in Tamil Nadu in the late eighteenth century and, by 1824, the maharaja of Ettayapuram, south of Madurai, had appointed Baluswamy Dikshitar (younger brother of the famed composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar) as his court violinist.

sax-sisSince then, writes the musicologist Amanda Weidman, the violin not only become “a vehicle for conveying Carnatic music to modernity”, it’s also come to be seen as essential to preserving Carnatic music’s authenticity”.

Over the years, other Western instruments have made their way into Carnatic music, notably the mandolin, the guitar and the clarinet.

Though the sari-clad Saxophone Sisters — MS Lavanya and MS Subbalaxmi — have been attraction attention recently, the saxophone isn’t really capable of expressing the nuances of Carnatic classical music. The problem, as singer TM Krishna explains in his recent book, A Southern Music, is that the reed instrument isn’t able to render gamakas, or ornamentations, that characterise the form. “This has led to saxophone-using musicians rendering only ragas with relatively less gamaka, thus limiting their own exploration of the music,” he writes.


Teddy Weatherford’s Cabin in the Sky

This recording by Teddy Weatherford and his band features three trumpet players. One of them is George Banks, father of the pianist Louis Banks. The other two hornmen, both Anglo-Indians, studied at St Mary’s School in Byculla: Bill McDermott (pictured above) and Pat Blake (who would later sit in with the Duke Ellington band when it toured India in 1962).

Thanks to Maxine Steller for this photo. This track is from the Marco Pacci collection. Kitty Walker is the vocalist.

Cabin in the Sky was the title song of a movie of the same name directed by Vincent Minelli. The plot was a variation on the story of Faust. It was a landmark film because it featured a cast that was entirely African-American. Perhaps the most popular tune from the film is the gently swinging Taking a Chance on Love.

Cabin in the Sky by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

The Sari-Clad Jazz Diva

lambert-hendricks-ross-492-lIn 1962, Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross were the most famous jazz vocal group in the world. They’d made their reputation launching bop classics at the audience with the speed of a rocket. Their trademark style was called vocalese: they sang the intricate solos that instrumentalists usually played on these songs, in quicksilver three-part harmony. For four years from 1959, they were voted the best jazz vocal group by Downbeat’s readers.  When Annie Ross left the group in 1962 because of health and personal problems, Jon Hendricks and Dave Lambert had to quickly find a replacement so that they could honour their concert commitments. Somewhat improbably, Ross’s substitute was a sari-clad woman: Yolande Bavan, a Sri Lankan Burgher as the descendents of the island’s former Dutch colonisers are known.

album2A few months later, Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan: Recorded Live at Basin St. East hit the stores. In the liner notes, producer George Avakian recounted how Bavan had come to the attention of her new band mates. “[Dave and Jon] met Yolande while she was in London and found that she was a fan of the group’s and had learned several of their intricate arrangements just for fun,” he wrote. “When a serious illness incapacitated Annie Ross a week or two later toward the end of their European tour, Dave and Jon returned to the States without her. After starting their U.S. engagement, they decided they had to take a chance on Yolande. She arrived just in time for a concert at Union College in Schenectady, New York.”


‘She Sold a Million Records’

Mexican magic by KEN MAC by tajmahalfoxtrot1

temp2A few weeks ago, Christine Holmes left a note on my site that added more details to this article:

“Beryl Templeman was my mother-in-law. She died at age 62. Usually at private parties she sang for Aly Khan, Maharajah of of Cooch Behar and Nizam Hyderbad while in the East. The actor Jack Hawkins urged her to join ENSA. By then, she had already made over 100 records for HMV and had her own radio show with All India Radio.

“She was awarded the Burma Star by the Duke of Edinburgh. She also worked for the American Forces Radio Network in Germany.

“Returning from India she performed at the London Palladium with Ted Heath, toured with Roy Fox and appeared regularly with Jack Jackson at the famous Churchill’s Club in London and at that time was sharing a flat with her friend, Pearl Carr.

Teddy Weatherford in Shanghai

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Before the African-American pianist Teddy Weatherford arrived in Bombay in 1935, he was a legend at the Canidrome Ballroom in Shanghai, a city whose nightlife, as evident from the clip above, was vibrant and had a famously notorious reputation across the world.

Shanghai was a thriving jazz centre, providing work for scores of bands from the US, Europe and across Asia. “Shanghai flames with millions of flashing jewels at midnight,” boasted the All About Shanghai guidebook, from which this ad is reproduced. “Joy, gin and jazz. There’s nothing puritanical about Shanghai.”

This recording is from the Marco Pacci collection. Weatherford plays piano and sings on this track. For more Weatherford recordings, click here.

How About You by Teddy Weatherford by Taj Mahal Foxtrot

Bengal Bounce

Tangerine by B.E.S.A. SWING TRIO by tajmahalfoxtrot1

BAWFMIn 1939, as Britain entered World War II, it established ENSA – the Entertainment National Service Association – to keep the troops in good spirits. Singers like Vera Lynn and actors like Laurence Olivier toured Europe to perform for field units. In August 1942, three months after the Japanese had driven the British out of Burma, Calcutta was filled with Allied soldiers who had fled South East Asia and were attempting to regroup. That month, members of Calcutta’s British community decided to form BESA – the Bengal Entertainment Services Association.

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