George Brooks: Global Conversations
AAJ: Can you define Summit's mission?
GB: There are a couple of things I am trying to accomplish. One is to establish a place where I can feel really comfortable expressing a lot of different parts of my musicality. I'd like to explore the romantic, really tone-centric things that attract me to raga, but also express the musical euphoria of playing with an incredible rhythm section. I want it to all be very comfortable so I don't have to worry about things and can express myself freely. Finding a place that unifies everything is where I believe this path of Indian influences is leading. There's a whole Norwegian jazz thing happening, and French too. African music is extremely present throughout Western pop, jazz and dance forms. Indian music hasn't been able to enter as easily into Western improvised forms of music. For whatever reason, when I was young and forming myself as a musician, Indian music was a huge influence. So, I feel drawn to continually work on that and get it out there.
AAJ: When you're onstage with Summit, do you ever look behind you and go "Holy crap! The drummer from Journey and Zakir Hussain are onstage playing my music?"
GB: Yes and no [laughs]. In the '80s, I was focused on jazz and Indian classical music. Journey was not part of my musical life. I don't think I would have known a Journey tune if it hit me in the face until much later when my kids played me one. There's a song called "Lights" that's the theme song of the Oakland A's, which my kids love. A lot of people were more freaked out about me playing with Steve than I was. Playing with Hariprasad was more like "What the hell am I doing up here with him?" [laughs] Earlier on, when I was working with Zakir and Aashish Khan, I had similar feelings. It blew my mind that these guys were playing music I had written. When I play with Summit, it blows my mind too, not because of what the musicians have done in the past, but the way they play today. I'm up there going "Wow, this feels so good." I still remember after the first Summit CD came out, we played in Singapore and Hong Kong. It was the first time I didn't have to think about anything. It felt like I was driving in an incredibly powerful machine and just knew it was working. It's an extraordinary feeling.
AAJ: Expand on how your connection with Zakir Hussain evolved so deeply.
GB: I've never asked Zakir what attracted him to my music, but there was something that did. After he offered to play on first album in 1995, I also said to him, "Can I afford you?" [laughs] He said, "Let's not worry about that. Let's talk about the music, because that's what's important." We had previously done some things with Terry Riley. In fact, the first time we played together was with Terry. After we put out Lasting Impression, Zakir was performing with The Rhythm Experience, which was a locally focused San Francisco Bay Area percussion group. It was the precursor to his Masters of Percussion group, which is mainly comprised of Indian musicians. I would often be a guest artist with the Rhythm Experience.
There were a bunch of other projects at that time. Zakir was commissioned by Mark Morris to write something for his dance company and Yo-Yo Ma. He asked me to do all the arranging and then I composed quite a bit of the music as well. At that time I was doing a lot of work for Zakir, notating his compositions and writing arrangements. We also worked on music for a Merchant/Ivory film called The Mystic Masseur together, which was wild. They said, "George, put together an orchestra for us." Zakir and Richard Robbins were the composers. So, I put one together and did a bit of writing, as well as played piano. Aashish Khan and Liam Teague, a steel drummer, were there as well. I still remember playing a big party at the Telluride Film Festival for that movie. Zakir, Aashish, Liam and I showed up backstage and we ran into Salman Rushdie, who was still under fatwa. He was there with his girlfriend Padma Lakshmi, who is now the star of Top Chef. It really blew my mind.
Next, we recorded Night Spinner which was a big production for Zakir's label. Aashish Khan and Sultan Khan both play on it. I started going to India to perform and because I was sort of anointed by Zakir, I was vetted, and got to do some wonderful performances. This was in 2001, which was the first time I stepped foot into India after my initial trips there in the '80s. I was performing with Zakir and the keyboardist Louiz Banks, doing fusion shows. I kept showing up in India with Zakir and it was a cool thing. By the graces of Zakir, I got to play at midnight Sufi concerts under the full moon with Sultan Khan in front of the Gateway of India and other extraordinary things.
After going to India with Zakir, I realized what a super-potent being he is over there. In the West, he's respected as an extraordinary musician, but in India he's like Michael Jackson. He's really revered. The more I got to see him in India, the more I could understand why. He's somebody who has taken tabla way out of its traditional role, yet maintained an unbreakable bond with the tradition. He's caught flack for a lot of his projects and some people don't understand why he plays with Western musicians, but he's a restless seeker and an unbelievable well of tradition. He's the avatar of his instrument.