Shambhu: Soothing Guitar for Stressful Times

Jakob Baekgaard By

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AAJ: What made you choose the guitar and what is it that you like about it?

SV: My mom chose the guitar for me. I was 7 and had successfully ended a 2-year relationship with a piano teacher who had insisted that I read music, when I simply wanted to play what I heard in my head. I was playing baseball lefty and wanted to flip the guitar. Learning guitar was rough at first but I got the hang of it. I played a Gretsch Country Gentleman and a Gibson L5 thanks to my parents.

AAJ: As I understand it, your music is partly inspired by Indian music traditions. Do you feel that you can express this influence fully on the guitar or have you thought about playing other instruments? In general, do you feel that the guitar can express what you want to say?

SV: I play with a softness, subtlety and humility that is surely Indian influenced. My own sense of 'musical perfection' emanates from a heart feeling I hold onto in my life. I dive into that feeling and deliver it through my songs and playing. Aldous Huxley said, "After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." My guru Sri Chinmoy saw music as an expression of the soul. From India I learned that in the hands of practiced artists, the meeting of intuition and outer expression is the penultimate music. Once I realized that, I no longer felt meaningless before the great composers like I did as a kid. And I began to feel my own music.

I play beginner sitar, tamboura and sarod and feel honored to feature India's great bansuri flutist Ravichandra Kulur who has performed with Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, on my albums Sacred Love and Soothe.

AAJ: You describe yourself as a jazz guitarist. What is jazz to you and what is the role of jazz in the way you play and compose music?

SV: Jazz is improvisation. Jazz is freedom. Jazz is a rainbow. Jazz is intuitive. Jazz is Nature. Jazz is how life should be. Improvisation is at the core of my music from inception to album. So is my own meditation experience. As John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and others showed me, jazz is a way to express something deeper, and I have aimed my musical offering in that direction.

AAJ: A genre like new age also comes to mind when thinking of your music. It's a term that is sometimes seen in a negative light. What is your own take on this?

SV: I understand the skepticism. New Age music became a part of my life when I wanted to hear a softer music for my own meditation and reflection. I remember traveling in the southwest listening to Paul Winter and native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai and I was blown away by the music like free improvisations with long tones. At my own new age shows with Premik, folks sat with closed eyes in meditation and reflection. At Jazz shows, I listen to brilliant instrumentalists and enjoy equally brilliant creative work. New Age has brilliance like jazz, but the artists have a different musical intention. Rather than dazzle with brilliant writing and excitement, New Age artists create music that calms the mind, opens the heart, and offers a moment of respite from a stressful life. Jazz compresses more notes into smaller spaces. New Age explores the spaciousness inside and around notes. Jazz feels like the city. New Age feels like the countryside.

New Age is really slow motion improvised jazz and some of the best jazz players are jazz artists. Who can deny the deep musicality and genius in the work of Shadowfax, Peter Kater, George Winston, David Lanz, Paul Winter, Eugene Friesen, Oregon and others who have huge New Age followings. My own songs are born in an improvisational moment and I work with jazz musicians who can read the notes and then transcend the music and become feeling. The players I have worked with are Tony Levin, Michael Manring and Kai Eckhardt (bass), Eugene Friesen (cello), George Brooks, Premik Russell Tubbs and Paul McCandless (sax), Celso Alberti (drums and percussion), Frank Martin (piano), Alec Hamilton (piano), Kristin Hoffmann (voice), Ravichadra Kulur (bansuri flute), Jeff Haynes (percussion) and others who are featured on my albums.

AAJ: Overall, how would you describe your own sound? Could you tell about the guitar you use and your approach to tunings, chord voicings and composition?

SV: My sound is evocative, intuitive, calm and laid back whether I'm playing up-tempo or slow. I use the standard guitar tuning except when I change the 6th and/or 5th string tunings to D/A of C/G to function as an Indian style drone and improvise sound paintings. Humility (on Sacred Love) features the D/A drone. Sanctuary (on Dreaming of Now) features the C/G drone. Both were created live. My writing process is simple -I record everything because my songs emerge at their own time, but generally when I'm warmed up. As I listen back to hours worth of jam sessions, I find the songs. I organize them into buckets, make demos of the ones I like, and return to them when I'm starting a new project. I typically have 40-50 ideas and whittle them down to an album's worth. What's left goes into the next album.

I play the Taylor GS6 acoustic for solo studio recording. For live gigs, I use the Taylor 816ce plugged into a Line 6 Helix with an Infinity Looper and LR Bags Para Acoustic Preamp. And I jam and loop with the T5 electric/acoustic which you can hear on the title track of Soothe.

AAJ: Your first album, Equinox (2009), was a duo collaboration with saxophonist Premik Tubbs. How did that record come about?

SV: After I met Premik Tubbs and Narada Michael Walden, I joined them as students of meditation teacher and guru Sri Chinmoy. In 1986 Premik and I wanted to do an album of improvisations on Sri Chinmoy's music and Equinox was born after a week's rehearsal in a Long Island recording studio. We each created jazzy arrangements of Sri Chinmoy's melodies, and every song led into a free improvisation. We spent 2-3 years playing small tours of the U.S., Canada and Europe organized by Sri Chinmoy's students. Premik and I continued to play together. He recorded on my albums Sacred Love, Soothe and Lilac Skies, and I introduced him to Will Ackerman who has included his work on dozens of albums.

AAJ: The title reminds me of John Coltrane and the album also strikes me as one of your most jazz-influenced records. What are your own thoughts about this?

SV: When Coltrane offered A Love Supreme he saw his music as an expression of his faith and spirit. That connection of music and spirit also inspired Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and it got my attention, too. For Premik and myself, Equinox was a jazz devotional album and we're both proud of this work.

AAJ: The guitar sound is very big on the record. Did you use any effects such as echo to achieve this?

SV: I used a boomy sounding and rare 1985-era Takamine roundtop acoustic electric 6-string which a natural echo, and a Takamine 12-string flat top. The roundtop never made it into production. I plugged them into a rack of Boss pedals including a chorus, flanger, compressor, echo, tremolo, etc.
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