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Saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins in Powai

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“I had no idea there were so many ashrams around Bombay!” More than four decades after he and his friend Jehangir Dalal got into a car and drove to more than a dozen religious retreats, Nirajan Jhaveri still remembered the day in 1968 vividly. The two men were among Bombay’s most obsessive jazz fans. As students at St Xavier’s College in the 1950s, they’d published India’s first jazz magazine, Blue Rhythm.  They were so crazy about the music that they were quite willing to drive for hours to chase down the rumour that a famous American jazz musician was studying yoga somewhere in the Bombay region.

After several unsuccessful halts, the two men eventually found themselves in Powai, at the mission run by Swami Chinmayananda. That’s how they came to find the legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who had taken a second break from his sky-high career to study yoga.  To hear Rollins tell it, he’d come upon the ashram quite by accident.

“I had been interested in metaphysical organisations and things like Buddhism, yoga and Sufism,” he said to one interviewer. “I felt like I needed to get more into self-improvement and the greater purposes and meaning of life. I had been investigating yoga since the ’50s, so I had been primed to make this voyage. It wasn’t something I did as a whim. I had separated from my wife for a while, and the time was right to make that move.”

Having read quite a bit about yoga and various yoga masters and teachers, Rollins says that he took his horn, a bag or two and booked a flight to Bombay. “On the last leg of the flight, I was talking to some Indian people and one fella knew something about ashrams.,” he recalled. “He suggested this particular place to me just outside of Bombay and this swami, Chinmayamananda.”

This is how he described a typical day at the ashram: “There were yoga students there from Europe and elsewhere and we had our meals and everything. When the swami came there were lectures. We studied the literature texts from the Vedanta. We studied the Upanishads and Yoga Sutras and all of these writings from antiquity. We weren’t doing hatha yoga so much — hatha yoga is the positions. We were mainly studying the texts, and when we didn’t have sessions, we’d endlessly discuss things among ourselves.”

Though he did perform a concert for the other students at the ashram, no one else in Bombay was privileged enough to hear the maestro play his horn. But he took trips to town with his new friends and, a decade later, they persuaded him to perform at the inaugural edition of the Jazz Yatra series of concerts in 1978.

Here’s an interview in which Rollins talks about his time in Bombay.

Fifty years after his trip to India, 83-year-old Rollins continues to practice yoga. Early in May, he released Vol 3 of his album series Road Shows, which includes a track titled Patanjali, named after the sage who is thought to have compiled the Yoga Sutras.

Meanwhile, here’s a collection of photos from his 1968, obtained from the album of Jehangir Dalal.

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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.
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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.
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Don Cherry and his Bombay gumbo

On New Year’s Day in 1992, a few hundred Bombay fans gathered in the very new Priyadarshani Park on Nepean Sea Road to listen to an eclectic bunch of musicians play a concert that was being recorded for of a BBC documentary. It would later be titled Bombay and Jazz.

The film was directed by the bearded HO Nazareth, a boy from Dadar who had gone on to make his mark in England. In his youth, he’d published a book titled Lobo, with poems like ‘Bombay Gymkhana Grounds’ (“the women wear chandeliers for earrings”) and ‘Warden Road’ (“At Bhulabhai Institute/acquaintances discussed/canvasses, busts/ and brothels in which/they exercised their lust.”)

011I was just starting my career at The Times of India and, the day before the event, was assigned to interview the director, whose friends variously referred to him as either “Naz” or “HoHo” because of his initials. I arrived in the lobby of the SeaRock Hotel in Bandra, where the crew was staying, and waited for him in the reception area. No one there was dressed the way I imagined a film director would be. I called up to his room, but there was no reply.  I would later learn Hubert Nazareth was actually the scruffy chap in the kurta and chappals I’d seen leaning against the wall.  But that discovery would only come the next day. Filled with panic that I wouldn’t have a story to take back, I asked the operator to call the room of any musician who was still in. The first one I found was the beret-wearing maverick, Don Cherry.

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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.

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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

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