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George Brooks: Global Conversations

By Published: March 26, 2012
AAJ: You've worked within many male-dominated projects. What was it like to have a project focused on female energy?

Summit, from left: Zakir Hussain, Fareed Haque, George Brooks Steve Smith, and Kai Eckhardt

GB: It's been really great. There was no clash of egos. Both Gwyneth and Kala are very accommodating. I tend to be a pretty relaxed presence. I'm not a domineering type of guy. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen at home and have raised three kids. I'm comfortable being around women and I like the way women express themselves musically. These two particular women do that incredibly well. Kala is beautiful vocalist and a technically monstrous violinist. She plays with incredible emotional impact. Gwyneth is approaching improvisation from a classical perspective and is just beginning her exploration of the Indian side of things. She spent two months in India last summer, living and studying in Delhi, so she's really committed to the concept. She's a celebrated orchestral player and is now expanding beyond that. It's exciting to be part of a younger musician's expansion and exploration. I'm looking forward to seeing where we can take the group next.

AAJ: Spirit and Spice is the first Summit record in eight years. What progression do you see from the debut album?

GB: I wanted this album to go deeper into Indian music, yet deeper into jazz too. There's a track on it called "Silent Prayer—Madhuvanti" which feels like a really effective Indian jazz piece, although people who aren't necessarily familiar with Indian music might not know it's Indian. However, anyone that knows Indian music will right away go "Oh, that's 'Raag Madhuvanti.'" There are no Indian instruments on that piece, yet it's a pretty clear expression of that raga concept. It offers a slower look at the pitches and a little more sonic ambience. The album also has some different people on it and all of the musicians have played together more often since the first album. Things were more relaxed in the studio.

The first time we got the whole band together, nobody knew what to expect, which also gave it a kind of excitement. For this one, the music had already evolved in a live context. With the previous Summit CD, nothing had been played prior to us going into the studio. For instance, "Lalita" was something I played a lot with Bombay Jazz, a group I have with Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell
and Ronu Majumdar, as well as in other configurations. I heard it expressed by a bunch of different musicians and knew for the album that I wanted Ronu to play flute on it. Sridhar Parthasarathy, the mrdingam player on "Monsoon Blues," is somebody I played with previously too. I've hung out with these people in India as well, so there was a strong connection to the people and places of India throughout the making of the album.

AAJ: At the core of Summit, you have four extremely strong personalities who are leaders in their own right. How do you go about directing them?

GB: A review of the first album said, "I'm holding onto a wild horse loosely" when describing the band [laughs]. I'm just kind of directing things, but it has some of its own energy. When you're working with really gifted people like that, who are tremendous virtuosos, you have to give them music that challenges them. You don't want them to be bored playing the music. You want to excite them. Sometimes you can't get things to sound the way you want because someone is chomping at the bit to express their own ideas. But I've also seen that change with maturity. The musicians in Summit are less controlled by their desires to express themselves. Now they're looking at the music and thinking "How do we make this work as a whole?"

Working with Fareed Haque, Kai Eckhardt and Steve Smith over so much time means they understand what I'm looking for and my temperament. They also like that I give them a lot of space to create their parts and contribute to the music. I'm not someone who creates a tune in MIDI and then goes "This is what the music has to sound like. Imitate these parts." Instead, I say "I've got this concept. Here's this raga. The tempo should probably feel like this. It's in a 15-beat cycle and I have these patterns that seem to work together. Let's work with them and see how they evolve." But sometimes, I have to be strong enough to say something like "That's not what I want to hear when I'm soloing" or "That's not what want to hear behind the melody. This is a part you need to play because it makes this happen, which expresses what I was looking for the piece to say."

AAJ: Reflect on the beginnings of Summit.

GB: It began back in 1996. I'm a late bloomer. I used to hang out with Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
Anthony Braxton
and play with people like Etta James
Etta James
Etta James
1938 - 2012
, as well as doing different kinds of commercial work as I tried to find my voice. I was working a lot with Terry Riley, who is a huge influence, and teaching a bit at Mills College. Anthony was teaching at Mills and we used to hang out in his office. In his trajectory, he skipped certain elemental things from jazz terminology and we'd exchange information. I would clarify some terminology related to chords, scales and conventions—not that he didn't know them in his own way. It was just simple stuff he perhaps ignored during his development, such as "When they say D9, does that mean a dominant seventh or a major seventh?" He would work with me as a composer and help develop me as an artist. He helped me get through some of the shit that was holding me back and taught me not to judge myself so harshly. His philosophy was "Write it and move on. Now, go out and fight for the music." He was very helpful and important to me.

Anthony really pushed me, and as a result, I pushed myself and wrote the music for Lasting Impression (Moment), my 1996 debut album, which I did with Krishna Bhatt, my main musical partner at the time. Krishna and I had dinner once—he lived just a block away from me back then. Zakir and Krishna were very good friends. One day, Zakir came over and offered to play on my album. I was stunned. I had met Zakir before and had been to his father's house in Bombay, back in the early '80s, with my guruji Pandit Pran Nath, the renowned Hindustani classical singer. So, I called Zakir the next day and said, "Were you serious about that?" [laughs] He was and he came and played, and then put the record out on his label Moment Records. That's what started my association with him.

At one point, Zakir was putting together a "Zakir and Friends" gig and that's where I first played with Kai Eckhardt. After that, I put out my second Moment Records album, Night Spinner, in 1998. Somewhere in there, Steve Smith called me. He said, "I've been on tour with a tabla player named Sandeep Burman in a group with Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
Randy Brecker
. I've been thinking about Indian music a lot and been listening to your stuff. The next time you do something, if you have something for me to play, I'd be interested." I said, "Well, actually I've been writing music for the Summit CD. Maybe that would be kind of cool for you to play on." Kai then said, "I work with an amazing guitarist called Fareed Haque." That's how the group came together.

Steve was studying South Indian rhythms and really interested in spending some time with Zakir. There was a funny moment when we had all rehearsed, except for Zakir. I wrote a piece called "Frame Master" that begins with a peshkar—as in the way a classical tabla solo opens a piece. It's very rhythmically elusive and hard to keep track of where the "one" is. Steve says "Whoa! Show me that Zakir." So he gets the first opening phrase and says "Oh cool. Now, that repeats?" Zakir says "No, no. Nothing ever repeats." [laughs] I'm like, "Guys, I'm paying the engineer here. You'll have to deal with that elsewhere." Subsequently, on tour, Zakir was an incredible teacher to us all in many facets.

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