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George Brooks: Global Conversations

Anil Prasad By

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Being a musician isn't a career for saxophonist George Brooks, it's a journey. Navigating an expansive variety of Indian classical music-influenced environments is at the heart of his travels. Brooks is best known for leading Summit, a cross-cultural ensemble that includes bassist Kai Eckhardt, guitarist Fareed Haque, tabla hero Zakir Hussain and drummer Steve Smith. He recently released the group's second album, Spirit and Spice (Earth Brother, 2010), which augments the core lineup with collaborations with renowned Indian musicians such as tabla master Swapan Chaudhuri, sitarist Niladri Kumar, flautist Ronu Majumdar, and violinist Kala Ramnath.

Summit reflects everything positive about "Indian fusion." The Berkeley, California-based Brooks is deeply steeped in Indian classical music traditions and theory, and is routinely sought after as an accompanist by legendary Indian musicians including Hussain, flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and mandolonist U. Srinivas—just to name a few. In many ways, Summit is a mutual respect society in which all performers—leader and sidemen alike—offer pivotal influences and ideas that are synthesized into a listening experience that's organic, invigorating and accessible.

Raga Bop Trio, another recent Brooks project, takes a driving, more groove-based approach to Indian fusion. Also featuring Smith, along with Indian electric guitar innovator Prasanna, the group's 2010 self-titled Abstract Logix debut explores funk, rock and even occasional Caribbean influences. Brooks also has a trio with celebrated keyboardist Terry Riley and tablaist Talvin Singh. The band performs compositions by Riley and Brooks, as well as Indian classical pieces. To date, it has toured Europe and is considering recording options and future performances.

Brooks' eponymously-titled Elements (Earth Brother, 2011) is named after his group featuring Kala Ramnath and Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink. Elements focuses on original works by Brooks and Ramnath, as well as ragas infused with European classical and jazz perspectives. Ramnath is considered one of world's foremost Hindustani violinists, as well as someone open to taking chances and integrating her sound into myriad world music and jazz contexts. Wentink is an award-winning musician, renowned in classical circles, but seeking to stretch her boundaries by exploring the vast potential available within Indian music. With complementary goals and shared passions, Brooks is brimming with enthusiasm about the possibilities open to Elements in the future.

AAJ: Describe how the Elements group came together.

GB: About five years ago, I was asked to perform with Hariprasad Chaurasia [Hariji], who I first started playing with in 2000. For me, he's the most amazing wind player to ever grace the planet. I learn so much every time I listen to him. And he's not someone I ever expected to play with. It's an incredible treat. The concert was a fundraiser for an Indian organization at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. Hariji and I played this concert with Vijay Ghate on tabla. It was recorded and made into an album called Kirwani: Message of the Birds (ArkivMusic, 2006).

A very young harpist named Gwyneth Wentink from the Netherlands also performed with us. This young woman, who's a famous harp virtuoso in the classical world, had just started studying Indian music. I was impressed with Gwyneth's musicality and eagerness to expand her musical horizons. Subsequently, we did a few gigs together with Hariprasad. When the Kirwani: Message of the Birds album came out, there was a release concert at the Barbican in London, and then we played the Lille Opera House, which was the Euro city of 2009. That same year, Gwyneth had won the Dutch Music Prize, which provided her with financial support for several years. In the final year of the prize they have a big "coming out" concert and she invited me and Hariji to play without drums. It was an acoustic thing at a beautiful concert hall called the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam.

So, Gwyneth and I had established a musical relationship through these gigs with Hariji. Because she's a classical player, I would write arrangements of Hariji's compositions, as well as accompaniment ideas. I was getting into the idea of using the harp more and more. In winter of 2010, I performed four concerts in India with Gwyneth and Hariji. Hariji has a school in Bombay and Kala Ramnath lives very close to it. Kala and I have worked together on several projects, including a group called Global Conversation. I always wanted Gwyneth and Kala to meet. Once, when Gwyneth and I were rehearsing, we called Kala and asked her to come to the school. She brought her violin and it immediately sounded really good with the harp.

I spent February and March writing music with Kala and Gwyneth in mind, figuring out harp parts on the piano, and working with some ideas Kala had. We all decided to move forward with a recording session. They arrived here in Berkeley on May 3rd, we rehearsed May 4th, and recorded May 5th through 6th. It happened really fast. I thought we'd do the session and maybe get one tune out of it, but it came out well enough that I wanted to make a CD out of it. After being on tour with the Raga Bop Trio for a month, with super-heavy drums and intense music, it was very satisfying to work with a harpist, deal with a lot of interesting patterns and take a more romantic approach to things.


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