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Arun Ghosh: A Very British-Asian Jazz Head-Space

Ian Patterson By

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What I’m about is jazz. It’s just that I’m using another language to the blues, or show tunes or indeed avant garde experimental music. —Arun Ghosh
If clarinetist/composer Arun Ghosh continues as he's going there's a danger he'll soon dethrone saxophonist Gilad Atzmon as the UK's hardest-working jazz musician. In between gigs, festival appearances and European tours, Ghosh is busy writing music for theatre, film, dance and multi-media events. His relatively short recording career has been marked by a refusal to stand still and a desire to explore. Two highly acclaimed albums, Northern Namaste (Camoci Records, 2008) and Primal Odyssey (Camoci Records, 2011) celebrated Ghosh's British Asian background and his affinity for—besides jazz—rock, punk and dance rhythms.

Now, Ghosh expands his horizons with A South Asian Suite (Camoci Records, 2013), a consistently beautiful work that signals a new chapter in Ghosh's fascinating story.

A South Asian Suite is the fruit of a commission by Manchester Mega Mela—a huge open air celebration of South Asian culture that took place in 2010: "I wanted to bring together styles, not just from Indian, which is often very central to how South Asian culture is presented in the UK," explains Ghosh, "but also Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh."

To represent musically such diverse areas was clearly a sizeable challenge: "These are countries which because of geography, history and culture have hugely different attitudes to creating music," says Ghosh, "and hugely different instrumentation and styles."

The music, however, which was written on the piano, birthed relatively quickly and painlessly as Ghosh relates: "The main six movements developed over the course of a day and a half. It came very naturally. It just flowed out of me in a way other things don't. Being commissioned to write something can bring that clarity because you kind of know what you have to do." Ghosh talks of the self-imposed brief he worked under and credits producer Chrys Chijiutomi's significant contribution: "Chrys was quite central to the music conceptually," Ghosh acknowledges.

Though most familiar with Indian, Bengali and Bangladeshi styles of music, on A South Asian Suite Ghosh also taps into the Qawaali style of Sufi devotional music. Cinematic in breadth, Ghosh's music evokes vast skies, mountainous landscapes and pastoral scenes on the one hand and the rude bustle of city life on the other.

The suite, however, is as much about conjuring ideas and feelings as it is about representing musical styles: "It was meant to be less a recreation of folk styles and more of an impressionistic work," Ghosh explains. "It was coming from the head space of being a British Asian from a Northern town so a lot of these pieces came from my imagination; I'd never been to Nepal. The melodies flowed out of me, and I think partly that's the folk ethos. For Sri Lanka I wanted something very different; a different cultural head space that I represented on "Journey South" by a different approach to composition. It was more psychedelic in some ways," says Ghosh.

Despite the conservatoire elegance of much of A South Asian Journey, Ghosh's source of inspiration comes very much from the folk tradition: "Folk is very central to it as opposed to classical cultures and that's always been the case in terms of what really resonates with me from South Asian music, indeed all kinds of music, whether it's the blues or gnawa or rai music," says Ghosh. "That folk sound is the blues of a culture. That's what I wanted to tap into, not necessarily the sadness of the blues, but a musical earthiness. That was central to A South Asian Suite."

Anybody coming to A Journey South expecting a veritable United Nations orchestra of Asian instruments is in for a surprise. Apart from tabla and a couple of Asian percussive instruments it's a jazz ensemble that drives Ghosh's suite: "When I first wrote it I started with a much more South Asian instrumentation like sitar and violin" says Ghosh, "but later I opted towards a more chamber jazz ensemble leaving out the tabla. So, the piece developed like that for a while."

Ghosh's debut recording, Northern Namaste featured a host of Asian instruments, but by the time Primal Odyssey came around he had stripped his ensemble down to a three-reed front line, bass and drums. Ghosh was also drawn to that more stripped down sound as the framework of A South Asian Suite began to take a hold in his mind and the violin, sitar and tabla were dropped: "My reason for that was similar to my head space when I was doing Primal Odyssey; I wanted the inherent feel of a South Asian sound without needing to push that any further through instrumentation."

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