Prasanna's Carnatic Convergence Concept Produces Potent Panethnic Potion
“ I personally feel that 'exotic', is in several ways, a Euro or American-centric term. To me, 'Jazz' or Classical music is as exotic or unexotic as Carnatic music or Zulu music or anything else, depending on which side of the street you're on. ”
The music of India has long crossed over into western pop, rock and jazz styles. Every few years, the press will note a 'resurgence' in this trend, which in fact, appears to have continued steadily since the days of George Harrison's fascination with Ravi Shankar. Jazz has incorporated Indian influences for many years as well, and much has featured the work of guitarists as diverse as Sean Lane, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, all of whom have made that musical journey from West to East. Very few are like Prasanna , who embarked outward from the land of musical mystery, born into that world, becoming extremely proficient with Indian classical traditions relating to composition and time, while absorbing, along a parallel but integrated track, the practices and systems of western classical and jazz music.
An interesting attribute of the world of Indian classical music is that it actually has a system, like professional golf or tennis, where players are grouped into levels and ranked. At 32, Prasanna is the only musician who performs the classical music of India on electric guitar at the highest professional level. Prasanna enjoys the benefit of parallel, sometimes intertwining career tracks; that is, some concerts feature him performing solely Indian classical music, some only jazz and for others, a repertoire drawn from both. Regarding the classical, he performs Carnatic music, or the classical music of southern India, which is differentiated from the classical music of northern India (the kind popularized by Ravi Shankar or Ali Akbar Khan) by the fact that the pieces are composed, analogous to western classical music, like cello suites or string quartets. The thing that differentiates Carnatic music from western classical music is the element that drew Prasanna to jazz-and that in turn, will draw jazz listeners to him - improvisation.
Prasanna plays guitar, quite simply like nobody on the planet. Talk about being able to identify a guy in three notes! Prasanna extrudes incredible fretless and sitar sounds from his array of electric axes- the fact that the fret is there as some sort of guideline or boundary ceases to matter due to his transparently fluid technique. He consciously executes quarter flat, quarter sharp or whatever else microtones, frequently incorporating slurring techniques rendering his left hand a wide ranging blur, all while incorporating western ideas into eastern virtuosity- all on a conventional fretted Les Paul. 'Alternate' tunings seem equally effortless for him, probably because such tunings are recognized as different 'classical' tunings in India. Such are the trappings of western musical thinking. These techniques lend newfound improvisational validity to and bend the ear toward even 'staple' rock phrases, let alone the sophisticated jazz phraseology he's capable of tossing off.
What's most important about all this technique is that it lends the playing, let alone the writing, a transporting quality- rare is the player on any instrument that can so change your headspace and your heart rate in two bars. Once familiar with his playing, you'll be able to identify it within a bar or two of music. If you haven't heard him yet, this interview should foster your curiosity. If you have, it'll certainly shed light on just how it's all happening.
Allaboutjazz: If you don't mind, please tell us how old you are, and where you are from. It adds perspective to your bio
Prasanna: I am 32, from Chennai, India.
AAJ: Who were your first influences, as a musician, and more specifically, on guitar?
P: The great Tamil film composer Illayaraja was my first influence as a musician.
AAJ: Was there an evolution in influences, or was there a point when you feel individual influences stopped?
P: Until around age 13, I was primarily listening to, and playing Tamil film music. By around 1983 or so, due to TV broadcasts of the Grammys etc, there was Michael Jackson- Thriller was a big influence at that time), Donna Summer, Tina Turner and a lot more pop music all around. So, I started playing all that stuff by ear along with film music.
AAJ: Can you explain how you started?
P: After playing a lot of film music and western pop, I wanted to get into more 'guitar' oriented music - 60's and 70's rock basically! I started performing in many cover bands in South India - played lots and lots of Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Santana, Scorpions, Led Zeppelin and started winning several semi-professional rock competitions all over India with my band. I was about 15 when all this was starting to 'snowball'. On a parallel track, I was studying Carnatic classical music on the guitar,which was hardly considered to be the 'right' instrument for this thousands-of-years-old traditional music, but I kept going at it. If I have to point one big influence at that time, it was Carlos Santana.
AAJ: As you went on, what else were you into?
P: I got into more progressive rock music like Rush, Jethro Tull, ELP and stuff and started playing those, finally leading into Steely Dan. That music sort of changed my life. I was now getting into something which was a lot of fun harmonically. I couldn't understand conceptually what was happening in all those incredible guitar solos of everyone from Denny Dias to Elliot Randall to Larry Carlton to other Dan guitarists, and in the horn arrangements etcetera, but was trying to play them note for note. I started to really hear and understand at some level, chord substitutions, and of course this new-found harmonic curiosity was eventually going to lead me into jazz in a big way.