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

Ian Patterson By

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The long form of A South Asian Suite allowed Ghosh to explore new compositional techniques: "The suite gave me the opportunity to do something I've never really done on record before, which was to do those Indian alap-style intros where you move from one piece to another by almost evoking what you are about to play. The segues connect pieces but also give listeners a bit of breathing space and move you from the delicacy of "River Song" to "Sufi Stomp," so going from Bangladesh to Pakistan, from rivers and fishermen and a naturalistic spirituality to something that's much more devotional and rhythm and chants based. We needed to lead people that way and that's where the segues come in."

Form and structure are key components of A South Asian Suite but so too is the spirit of freedom that pervades the suite: "Improvisation is central to what we do," says Ghosh, "for the lyricism it brings and for the energy it injects into a piece. It's not the [saxophonists] Sonny Rollins or the John Coltrane approach where you play and become more and more expansive. People had a set amount of time to play, two choruses then bang we're moving on. I love the fact that everyone has a limited amount of time to say everything they want to say and take it to the next place."

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."

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