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

Ian Patterson By

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Key soloists on A South Asian Suite are alto saxophonist Chris Williams and tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman, who also plays clarinet and flute. The three-reed front-line originally developed from a line-up put together by Ghosh's manager/producer Chrys Chijiutomi; Ghosh, Shabaka Hutchings and Idris Rahman combined to powerful effect on Primal Odyssey: "It worked brilliantly," says Ghosh. "I think a three-horn line is so effective because moving beyond two you've suddenly got a section. You can have real power in terms of unison melody and parallel melodies. So often in standard jazz, from bebop onwards you wouldn't have horns accompanying other horns; the soloist would play and the other horn would sit out. Even on Kind of Blue the textures you get on "All Blues" where horns are accompanying each other on the intro and the outro is quite rare on the rest of the album—it doesn't really happen."

Ghosh talks of the influence of the old New Orleans jazz sound in his approach to using horns but his main influence came from Indian music: "It was modeled on [shenai player] Bisbillah Khan's ensemble. He had two other guys who doubled the melodies, who sometimes did little bits of improvisation and provided a drone sound. Then he had two percussionists with a dholak and a tabla. I basically thought of my three-horn front-line with bass and drums as a parallel of that."

Rahman, Williams—who plays in Led Bib—and Ghosh combine beautifully on A South Asian Suite: "I think we balance really well," Ghosh says. "The combination of clarinet, alto and tenor is great for a start, but their approach to horn playing is pretty radical in lots of ways; they tap into their influences, whether it's [singer] Fela Kuti, tradition, or whether it's [saxophonists] Ornette Coleman—all of this stuff comes together and the collective sound is really strong and inspiring. There's a real joy to supporting each other."

Ghosh's route into jazz began at a formative age: "I came to the clarinet when I was 12 and the instrument just felt totally right," he recalls. "I remember [saxophonist] Courtney Pine playing on the TV in the late 1980s. It was a Free Nelson Mandela concert. I think Courtney had just put out his second album [Destiny's Song (Antilles, 1988)]. My Mum bought me that and I really kind of ate it up. I'm glad that was my first jazz album because of the energy behind it and the sort of modal stuff he was into around that time."

Growing up in Bolton, just ten miles from Manchester to first generation Indian parents, Ghosh was exposed to quite diverse musical influences, all of which have shaped his musical philosophy and performance style. Like many kids his introduction to music was through the recorder at school and straightaway he felt a connection: "That was really clear," acknowledges Ghosh. "I made up my own music and improvised. I played tunes for people. I played pop stuff I heard on the radio for my friends and on the other hand [Rabindanath] Tagore songs, Bengali folk songs or film songs that aunties and uncles would teach me and ask me to play."

This introduction to performance in informal settings was key to Ghosh's musical development: "From the beginning I was very much into music as a culture of communication," says Ghosh. "I'm really pleased that happened, more so than any instrumental lessons I might have had, or not had. The fact that I was encouraged to play for people is central to who I am and what I'm about."

Who Ghosh is and what he's about musically are the sum of the eclectic influences—geographical, ethnic and social identities included—that he has experienced. Ghosh's parents are first generation immigrants to the United Kingdom: "My mother came over in the late 1950 and my father came in the 1960s, both from very different parts of India. They met in the UK. That's an important distinction in some ways, because in terms of South Asian culture I'm mixed.

"My Dad is from West Bengal and my Mum's heritage is Sindhi, which later became part of Pakistan, hence the little reference to "Soul of Sindh" on A South Asian Journey." Ghosh's mixed South Asian culture serves as an illustration of the complexities of Asian communities and Asian identities in the UK today: "Our culture here is so varied," says Ghosh, "based on religion, class, how long people have been here, education, where you've grown up, segregation in various cities, which isn't necessarily present in other places etc. etc. etc. It's so sprawling."

Ghosh's own set of circumstances meant that he was exposed to a wide range of music from different cultures: "Through my Mum I was listening to the Beatles and Bob Dylan. Through my Dad I was listening to James Brown and Ravi Shankar. We all listened to Michael Jackson, Nina Simone and Carole King I'm very much a product of the 1960s—The Doors, the Rolling Stones.

"Listening to that music was slightly different to your standard South Asian upbringing where two parents are from the same place and retain their shared culture. Because my parents were from two very different places culturally our common ground was England and English, Britishness. That influenced who I was, what I played and how I played it."

The music scene that Ghosh's parents' encountered in 1960s and 1970s England was vibrant and revolutionary. Manchester itself was home to Van der Graaf Generator, Joy Division, The Fall and Buzzcocks—a heady mixture of prog rock, punk and alt rock. In the 1980s, when Ghosh cut his musical teeth, Manchester was no less a hub of musical creativity; New Order, The Happy Mondays and The Smiths all enjoyed critical and commercial success. Ghosh was drawn to the rockier end of the spectrum and by his own admission it has had a huge impact on his music.

"There was a lot of great music coming out of Manchester," says Ghosh; "Indie music like the Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses, the Charlatans, the Inspiral Carpets and dance music like 808 State." Manchester's club scene then as now was internationally famous and Ghosh hungrily absorbed the different rhythms to be found right on his doorstep: "As I got older I started getting into hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, Jungle and clubbing, going out dancing. I was also very into bands like Nirvana—high-energy passion. I think that's been central to the performance style I wanted to get."

Classical music too played an important role in Ghosh's learning the ropes of the clarinet and he took classical studies at the Royal Northern College of Music. Right around that time, however, Ghosh began to delve deeper into jazz and the two musical worlds couldn't happily co-exist. "I realized that the classical world wasn't for me," says Ghosh. The constraints of classical music etiquette meant that Ghosh's gyrations as he played were frowned upon: "Well, I tried," says Ghosh laughing. "I would move when I was playing Brahms or Mozart but I got criticized for it."

Ghosh hasn't turned his back entirely on classical music: "One day I'd really like to have the opportunity to play classical music again because I love it. But sadly that world was too closed for me—at least there and then—and I was too open for it." Ghosh gravitated towards a freer and more informal style of schooling— jam sessions: "I was going out clubbing and playing with DJs, playing with samba drummers, playing at parties and just getting a sense of whole other worlds," says Ghosh. "That was a really important time. A lot of the things that ended up on Primal Odyssey developed around that time."

There were also more instructional fortnightly lessons with Mike Hall, who Ghosh describes as "a fantastic educator." Hall taught Ghosh jazz standards, the piano and composition.

Shortly after finishing college Ghosh took his first steps as a professional musician and another important period in his development began: "I started getting work in theatre composition, working with Indian dancers and Indian musicians and learning katak styles. It was a really good grounding in South Asian rhythm because rhythm is so important for Indian dancers' steps and cycles."

For Ghosh it was very much a case of learning on the job. He would learn the tunes and melodies and play what he was told to play, as well as what not to play: "Through that I started to get my own concept of South Asian music. I think that's quite important," says Ghosh, "because most South Asian classical musicians study how the music is played with a guru and it's been like that since the year dot. I was lucky enough to be able to come to it in a different head space. I was in a position to think, what is it I like about this?"

Ghosh admits to having an intuitive feel for the music: "Even though I'd never really played classical Indian music before I think I had the right feel, the right flow and intonation, the right groove and the right sentiments, basically. It opened my eyes because it then started to influence my composition. Rather than just wanting to jam over the tabla it became important to me as an element of self discovery and identity to actually be able to play this stuff. I didn't just want to do it okay; I wanted to do it well."

Adopting a rather unusual approach, Ghosh threw himself into learning the intricacies of classical Indian tradition: "Just as when I was learning jazz, transcribing [saxophonist, John] Coltrane solos, [pianist] Herbie Hancock solos and [saxophonist] Cannonball Adderley solos, I started to do a similar thing with South Asian music—listening to the records and transcribing the music. That's a real jazz culture approach to a South Asian style. You don't learn South Asian music like that. You normally learn from a guru for years. It started to influence my composition and that's where Northern Namaste came from."

Ghosh's first album was an intoxicating brew of Indo-jazz filtered through the rock, punk and dance cultures that the clarinetist had absorbed growing up. Dholak, bayan drums and tabla mingled with a jazz set-up of drum, bass, piano and saxophone. There was sitar too, played by Jonathon Mayer, son of the progenitor of Indo-jazz in the UK, composer/violinist John Mayer. Mayer had come to London in the early 1950s and besides playing with the London & Royal Philharmonic Orchestras he also formed the group Indo-Jazz Fusions with alto saxophonist Joe Harriott, recording the groundbreaking album Indo-Jazz Suite (Atlantic, 1966).

"That was the first Indo-jazz that I heard and I heard it at a good, formative stage," says Ghosh. My Mum had the LP, actually. I did enjoy that record. What I loved about it was the wonkiness of it. They were just trying things out. It was so 1960s; they had a harpsichord in it," Ghosh says laughing. "I liked where it was coming from compositionally. The compositions and improvisations were really strong. But more so than the South Asian element I loved the Joe Harriot side of things. Sometimes you can feel that they were sticking things together but the ethos behind it was real and it wasn't about fusion."
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