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Introducing Pianist Samvit Prem Singhal

Introducing Pianist Samvit Prem Singhal

Courtesy Susan Peterson

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Samvit has a unique set of musical influences, which give his playing an interesting balance of tradition and innovation.
—Matt Slocum
This article first appeared in Jersey Jazz Magazine.

Growing up in Delhi, India, Samvit Prem Singhal always had a love for jazz, although he played classical piano. "I was playing piano since I was three years old," he recalled. "I started playing Indian classical music. Then, I transitioned into western classical music. But my dad had some jazz CDs, and, in the back of my head, I always thought, 'I want to play jazz.'"

After his family moved to New Providence, NJ, in 2019, Singhal took private lessons from jazz/classical pianist Eric Olsen and, in 2021, joined the New Jersey Youth Symphony Jazz Orchestra, part of the Wharton Arts performing arts education center in Berkeley Heights. Now a senior at New Providence High School, Singhal, who will turn 18 this month, recently performed as the pianist in the New Jersey Association for Jazz Education's All-State Jazz Choir.

As for NJYSJO, "I'm so grateful that through this program I got to meet so many great musicians and had the opportunity to work with students like me in the Jazz Orchestra. The faculty has been absolutely great! I've worked with (drummer) Matt Slocum regarding the rhythm section—building the ability to communicate musically, feeling the music and forgetting about all the technicalities. In addition to Mr. Slocum, (tenor saxophonist) Lance Bryant has been absolutely great. I love the way he plays, and I also got to do a gig with him and his daughter, (bassist) Caylen. She's currently doing her masters at Juilliard. It's been super fun just meeting these musicians and talking to them, and knowing more about where they come from. I find Mr. Bryant's background playing in church has really shaped the way he plays music. It's more spiritual. It's something I sort of strive for in my playing."

According to Slocum, Singhal "has a unique set of musical influences, which give his playing an interesting balance of tradition and innovation. He can play very lyrically with a sensitive touch but also can be a more driving part of the rhythm section when the music calls for it—without sacrificing the warmth in his sound. His ears are great, and he has a rich harmonic vocabulary."

Trombonist Dion Tucker is the Director of the NJYS Jazz Orchestra, which will be presenting its first jazz concert of the season at 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 4, at Saint Elizabeth University in Morristown. The performance will also include the NJYS Big Band, directed by educator/composer/arranger Gregory Williams, and the Jazz Workshop directed by baritone saxophonist David Schumacher.

Tucker took over as Director of the Jazz Orchestra in September 2021. "Last year," he said, "we concentrated on traditional composers such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones. This year, I'm incorporating different composers." Some of the pieces to be performed at the

December 4th concert will be Stan Kenton's "Stompin' at the Savoy" as arranged by Bill Holman, George Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" as arranged by Fletcher Henderson for Benny Goodman; and "Manteca" by Dizzy Gillespie. The latter, Tucker said, is an important way to introduce the band members to Afro-Cuban rhythms.

Singhal is "super excited" about the concert "and the way Mr. Tucker laid it out for us—to try to build the music and add emotional complexity and color. I really enjoy 'Manteca' a lot. It's just so much fun to play, with all the trumpets just going crazy." Studying with Eric Olsen, who is on the Wharton Arts faculty, was "really fun," Singhal said. "He sort of pushed me to learning jazz but also still playing classical music, which really kept me open to both those things. I went to a couple of his shows, and he sort of put together western classical music and jazz. It's also something I feel I really want to do, connecting Indian classical music with jazz. There are so many musicians who explored this. John Coltrane was going to study with Ravi Shankar before he passed."

The NJYS Jazz Orchestra's rhythm section has formed a band of its own called Brick as a Feather, a play on words referring to Light as a Feather, the 1972 Polydor jazz fusion album recorded by Return to Forever, which was led by Chick Corea. The other members of Brick as a Feather are bassist/vocalist Mad Jupiter, a resident of East Windsor who attends West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North; and drummer Luke Tan of Edison, a student at the Wardlaw + Hartridge School. "We rehearse at each other's places," Singhal said. On Sundays when the NJYSJO practices, "We go straight from the rehearsal in my basement to the Jazz Orchestra rehearsal—11 a.m. to 6 p.m."

Corea and Bill Evans are Singhal's two piano heroes. "I've listened to so much Bill Evans for his harmonic motion." As for Corea, "It's just the groove and melody that's so different and so much fun to listen to."

Singhal has applied to several colleges in the Northeast. "I want to pursue a dual degree: physics and music," he said. "I've really been passionate about astronomy as well since I was a kid. So, I sort of want to explore that further. I really like seeing the world through the equations in physics and connecting that to music, like figuring out tunings and all that stuff, to try to understand music through a more physical perspective. I don't know what that could lead to after college, but one thing I do know is that I want to keep playing. I want to continue to do gigs.

"I recently read this book called The Jazz of Physics" he continued. "It's written by this physicist at Brown. It was really interesting because he does gigs in New York City, but he's also a theoretical researcher in physics, connecting quantum gravity to 'Giant Steps' and figuring out relationships between those two. I don't know what that stuff means. It's post-PhD level physics. But, if this guy's able to do something like that, maybe I could discover and find out about it."

The book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe by Stephon Alexander (Basic Books: 2016), made Physics World's Book of the Year 2016 Shortlist and was named one of the Best Books of 2016 by National Public Radio's Felix Contreras. "Music and physics might seem like polar opposites," wrote Physics World's Trevor Cox, "one having great emotional potency and the other being a cerebral subject of equations, theories, and deductions. Both, however, benefit from improvisers—people who stand on the shoulders of giants, taking earlier triumphs and building on them to create something new."

Thirty-six student musicians will participate in the December 4th concert, representing more than 20 New Jersey schools. In addition to the three ensembles, the students will also play in smaller jazz combos.

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