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Trilok Gurtu: Stirring the Big Old Pot


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There is a popular theory of mathematical probability, that if you put a typewriter in front of a monkey, it will, through a process of trial and error, eventually produce a play of William Shakespeare. Swayed by the same sweeping logic, others believe that if you put a trap kit and assorted percussive instruments in front of Trilok Gurtu, then he will, in time, play every genre of music known to humankind. Before leaving his native India in the mid-'70s Gurtu had developed a substantial vocabulary of Indian rhythms through his Bollywood studio work, and these grooves have provided the platform for a host of musical experiments over the years.

As a classical tabla player, Gurtu has played with the finest musicians from his country, including tablaist Zakir Hussain, violinist Lakshminarayana Shankar and sarangi player Sultan Khan. But from his first recordings in the mid-'70s with Italian world music band Aktuala, Gurtu was experimenting with diverse musical genres, in a group which combined two soprano saxophones and acoustic guitar with Indian, Arabic and African wind and reed instruments, plus gongs, tabla, African drums, Moroccan bongos, cow bells and snake drums. Gurtu gently dismisses the significance of Aktuala in his musical formation as "hippy days" but those years were at least indicative of directions that Gurtu would refine and pursue with vigor in the years to come.

Several years in veteran jazz ensemble Oregon, and a four-year stint in the celebrated acoustic trio of guitarist John McLaughlin brought Gurtu to the attention of a wider jazz audience. However, Gurtu has never hung his hat on a single peg, and he found kindred spirits in saxophonist Charlie Mariano in India and trumpeter Don Cherry in Italy, musicians, who like Gurtu, sought meaningful synthesis of diverse musical traditions.

Like a musical alchemist Gurtu has combined the complex rhythms of India and Africa over the years, perhaps best captured on his excellent Beat of Love (Blue Thumb, 2001). His debut as leader, the electronic-hued world fusion, Usfret (CMP, 1987) was a significant influence on young British electronic innovators, Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney and Asian Dub Foundation. But Gurtu never rests on his laurels for too long, and his ongoing musical explorations have led to collaborations with Mongolian throat singers, string quartet and orchestra, Korean samul nori percussionists, and musicians as diverse as saxophonists Jan Garbarek and Pharoah Sanders, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, singers Omou Sangare, Angeliique Kidjo and Salif Keita, as well as bassist/producerBill Laswell and art music composer Phillip Glass.

Sooner or later, it seems, Gurtu was bound to throw himself into the big band arena. 21 Spices (SPV, 2011), his fifteenth recording as leader, pits Gurtu with the NDR big band and versatile drummer Simon Phillips, and together the 21 musicians deliver vibrant performances of Gurtu's compositions, stylishly arranged by Wolf Kerscheck. Phillips brings the more direct rhythms of rock into big band territory while Gurtu, in his inimitable style, weaves percussive lines that fuse Indian and African and South American beats together in a melting pot all of his own design. It is another impressive recording from the veteran Indian musician who strives, often against the tides of fashion, to present music which is all embracing, and which opens its arms to the widest possible public.

All About Jazz: Trilok, 21 Spices is a fascinating recording, could you tell us how this project came about?

Trilok Gurtu: Being a percussionist/drummer, there's not much faith from the promoters. So, for a long time I had to convince them that this is something very new, these influences of Indian and African music, not only related to jazz, but open to everybody. It took a while. Then I spoke to Nils Landgren, the trombone player from NDR and one or two other people and slowly the penny dropped. Once they had listened to some of the tunes then it worked.

AAJ: Was this a project that you'd had in mind for some time?

TG: I always like to do very different things; I never stick to one thing. My music is based on all music being one. Indian music is a very strong cultural element to mix with other cultures, if one knows how to do that. There are a lot of African influences in my music, and some gamelan. Music is like that, it's just pot of influences. If you want to dig in you get it out.

AAJ: What was it like working with the NDR big band?

TG: It took them a while to take me seriously. I live in Germany but nobody here took me seriously for years. They didn't even know I lived here and do all this stuff, but I am not the kind of person who goes out and blows his own trumpet. It was something very new for them and a little bit difficult. The vocabulary of music has developed and I think they understood that after a while. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

AAJ: The performances on 21 Spices certainly sound very cohesive; was there much rehearsal before the recording?

AAJ: I rehearsed with Simon Phillips, the bassist, the guitarist and the piano. The rhythm section rehearsed and got the parts right. I also had a very good arranger, Wolf Kerschek, who is very talented and very cooperative. He took my ideas and really made something out it. He translated it very well. I would say, "Let's put this Brazilian frevo here, or this African instrument here which fits very well with the Indian music," and he said: "What?"I said, "Yes, try it. I put gamelan and all these different mixtures which sound minutely if you listen properly." So, it was a blessing that he cooperated with me and then he went to the orchestra and he told the big band that this was tricky stuff and they needed to take it seriously and learn the parts. It was because of teamwork that it worked. It was powerful work from both of us.

AAJ: How did Simon Phillips come into the project?

TG: I didn't just want a jazz drummer. It's very tightly played music, metronomically. I thought Simon would be best for the job, coming from the rock world. I've known Simon for a while and I know how good he is and what he's good at and I thought it would be great to have him on board and I think he did a fabulous job. And so did Michel Alibo, the bassist from Martinique.

AAJ: Absolutely; a big part of the African element of the music on 21 Spices stems from Alibo's bass playing. It's very funky and really sets the music up. Did you have him in mind from the start?

TG: Yes, from the start. He's played with Salif Keita and many of the other African greats who have played on my CDs. I think we spoke the same language and he got it down very well. He was very well prepared; I would send him rough bass parts and suggest this part from that part of Africa and this kind of mode and he got it.

AAJ: Your guitarist, Roland Cabezas has been with you for several years; what does he bring to your music that you like?

TG: He knows the music so after playing with me for a long time he knows what I want and what I dislike. I'll say, don't play this melody like an instrument, play it like you're singing. He gets it.

On this recording I was very definite about what I wanted. If somebody started playing free I told them I didn't want that. As an Indian musician, or whatever people call me, doing a big band recording which is very different, I was very straight with everybody about what I wanted. I knew what I wanted the band to sound like.

AAJ: The photograph of the band is interesting as it shows that you had the saxophone section right behind you; was that not difficult to play over?

TG: Oh man! That was quite hard for listening. But I could hear everything. I wanted everyone to respect the dynamics of the music, so if they were out of tune or out of time so I would stand up and tell the arranger.

AAJ:A lot of you playing on 21 Spices is very subtle; was it not bothersome to have the saxophones that close?

TG: No. I just had to go through it and play. I knew it was recorded so I knew I could bring it up in the mix.

AAJ: The song dedications tell a large part-though by no means all-of your story. "Peace of Five" is dedicated to your mother Shoba Gurtu and "Balahto" is dedicated to older brother Ravi Gurtu; how did they influence you musically?

AAJ: My mother taught me that music is something very spiritual; that was the main thing. She also showed me how each note could be played, could be stated in a different way. I learned how to respect the melody, how to accompany from her as a child. Ravi was one of the greatest Bollywood arrangers. And he had very good grooves which people still speak about, though he is no more. "Balahto" is coming from Africa, kpanlogo from Ghana; I was doing this music a long time ago but it was rejected because people didn't grow up how I was growing up. The journalists and the media had no idea what kpanlogo is, or what apala from Nigeria is; they didn't know at all. Now they know a little bit of ju-ju, of highlife, but when I was doing all this years ago nobody knew what I was doing. They didn't write about it or they criticized it or they said it was jazz. Although things are a bit more global but their mind is not global; they are stuck in the clichés of knowing things instead of knowing the roots. I have spent a lot of my time in Africa and "Balahto" is India and Africa mixed. It took people a long time to understand this when I did this with Beat of Love with Omou Sangare. People have to understand that music is one, and India and Africa are a very strong part in that.

AAJ: Absolutely, I don't think anybody would argue with that. The track "1-2 Beaucoup" is dedicated to the late, great Joe Zawinul. You got to know Zawinul quite well, playing with him in a duo for a year; that's a fairly unique honor you hold, no?

TG: [laughs] He was a strong personality but we got along very well. He said: "Man, I've never met someone like this." I said: "Yeah, there's always a first time Joe, to meet somebody like me." But, no, we got along very well. Most of the music we did was improvised. If you see it on YouTube or wherever it is all improvised music. He also played piano on my CD [Crazy Saints (CMP Records, 1993)] on the tune "Ballad for 2 Musicians," which I think is an incredible tune. He was a genius. I'm lucky because musicians see the quality of what I'm doing with Joe Zawinul, [guitarists] Pat Metheny, Steve Lukather, and John McLaughlin, Don Cherry, Jan Garbarek. Even [trumpeter] Miles Davis spoke highly of me. I just love music, like you. I think we need to respect music and do justice to it, like doing justice to yourself. This I learned from my spiritual teacher, Ranjit Maraj, to whom I've dedicated the whole CD.

AAJ: How much of a challenge was it for both you and Zawinul to keep the musical exchange fresh and vital over the course of a year?

TG: We'd really challenge each other on stage every day, like boxers actually.

AAJ: He was a big boxing fan.

TG: Oh yeah, I said: "Don't worry; I'll box with you on stage. Don't worry about that." But it was really good. We would joke and fight and giggle. It was a really lovely experience.

AAJ: You called Zawinul a genius; his passing wasn't met with the noise that his status perhaps deserved.

TG: It happens with everybody; it happened with Bach. People only realize after he has gone. It happened to my mother. The Prime Minster sent a letter but when she was alive nobody gave a damn. But this is human nature. This is how people are. You can't do anything about it. When he's dead they can now write freely because he's not going to come and shout at them [laughs]. This is part of the music business.

AAJ: A great track given the big band treatment on 21 Spices is "Kuruk Setra," which is dedicated to guitarist/composer John McLaughlin. You spent four years in McLaughlin's acoustic trio with bassists Kai Eckhardt and Dominique di Piazza; had either the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Shakti made an impact on you while you were still living in India?

TG: I think no; I heard it, but it was not an influence on me. But John made an impact because he was the only one playing Indian music and everything, and his love for it, and he was so at ease doing this. The whole sound of his guitar, like veena, that got me more. The sound got me more than the chops. He did so much to promote Indian music. He's one of the only ones who knows Indian music so well and applies it and executes it so well.

AAJ: In the liner notes to your compilation CD Twenty Years of Talking Tabla (Manteca, 2007), you say, and I'm paraphrasing, that McLaughlin's acoustic trio wasn't an immediate success; did you mean as a cohesive unit or commercially, critically?

TG: Commercially we weren't an immediate success. It was so unusual. John took such a risk playing acoustic guitar and my percussion instead of a standard American drummer. After a couple of years it just took off and people got the message that there was something very different there.

AAJ: The album Live at the Royal Festival Hall (Polygram, 1990) is a wonderful document of that trio and you solo on "mother Tongues" is a highlight of the set; did the success of that album and the fame of your solo alter people's perception of you to any great degree?

TG: Thank you; that's what I mean when I say it took a while for people to get it but by that time we had it; John had the whole thing figured out very well. He was a very good band leader. I think that album either altered their perception or they kept their mouths shut, because what happens when you're not playing American? What happens when you're playing so unorthodox? When you're playing African and south Indian people where say: "Where is the bass drum?" I'd say: "No, I don't have a bass drum." They'd say: "No, you have this incredible bass drum." You saw me sitting on the floor. Before, I was criticized for playing on the floor and for playing without a bass drum. They said if I went to America I'd never get a job. I said, "That's ok, there are enough jobs here." When I went to America people were looking for where my bass drum was because they thought where the hell do you get the bass sound? It was a different approach and that recording probably did put more light on everything, I would say.

AAJ: That trio stayed together for four years, though the bass chair changed a couple of times; four years on one project for John McLaughlin is a very long time...

TG: We loved playing with each other.

AAJ: Was there a sense of disappointment that something so beautiful came to an end or had it run a fairly natural course?

TG: Actually I stopped because I had to stay home for a long time. I had to take care of the family and I could not travel. He understood it. He was disappointed, I was disappointed, but I had to do it. Then I started doing my own stuff, which John always encouraged and he still encourages me to compose, and that's very good. .

AAJ: You and McLaughlin seem to share a similar musical philosophy, as you both dive in to all kinds of music and all types of settings and to hell with the consequences. You are both fearless experimenters and I think that unites you in a way.

TG: Yes, of course; John is a very deep musician.

AAJ: The track "Jhulelal" is dedicated to R.D. Burnam; what's his significance for you?

TG: I started playing Bollywood with him. He wanted me to be around all the time and really encouraged me. I learned all the grooves needed for the movies. This was in the '70s. I then went to America with him in '75. I had a very good time in the studio with him.

AAJ: What do you think that Bollywood experience brought to your playing?

TG: I learned to groove; different grooves for different tunes, you see. India is huge and everyone plays different there so I learned different grooves from Nepal to Jarkhand, from Assam to Gujarat.

AAJ: The title track is dedicated to the mridangam master Palghat Raghu; how did he shape your music?

TG: He was Incredible. He used to really love me and used to tell me I'm the ambassador for south Indian music. I asked him some things and he gave me a lot of tips. He told me to let my music sound simple. But all of the musicians who have played with me say, man, it's easy to listen to but it's hard to play. And this is what I learned from Palghat Raghu.

AAJ: You've increasingly made a name for yourself as a world music musician, but it could be argued that you've done nothing but world music since your first recording of your career, with the Italian band Aktuala. In that band you were playing Moroccan instruments and a whole array of interesting percussion instruments.

TG: Aktuala, yeah, '73. I hope I've improved; I had no instruments, nothing. I just played on anything that was given to me. I learned to play on anything. I learned that the instrument is not all that important, you are very important. What's going on inside you is really important.

AAJ: Do you consider Aktuala an important band in your career?

TG: It was good; it was what it was at that time. Those were hippy days.

AAJ: You moved to America a few years later; how did the move to America pan out?

TG: I went to Berklee and got rejected, so then I went to New York and spent some time there with different musicians in the Village. I was not too happy about the scene in America. It was a productive time but it was just very difficult to understand the mentality. But I still enjoy playing in America.

AAJ: Being rejected by Berklee doesn't seem to have harmed your career, but it must have been disappointing at the time; do s it bother you now?

TG: No, no; they ask me now to come and teach there and do workshops. Thank god I didn't join Berklee. It was a blessing in disguise, actually.

AAJ: Where did you first meet saxophonist Charlie Mariano and trumpeter Don Cherry?

TG: I first met Charlie in India and Don Cherry I met in Italy.

AAJ: You've described Cherry as an even greater innovator than trumpeter Miles Davis; could you elaborate on that a little?

TG: Of course. Miles Davis was a genius for me but think everybody underestimated Don Cherry for what he did with his music. Everybody was so fixed on jazz you see. Don Cherry was using table practically. He was using African music practically. He didn't use it as a fashion.

AAJ: Cherry played on your first solo recording, Usfret and on that album you also employed electronics which had quite an influence on a young generation of musicians in Britain, people like Nitin Sahwney, Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation; it must be quite gratifying to know that your music struck a chord with a younger generation of innovators, no?

TG: I'm really happy; Talvin and Nitin really helped me. They really helped me to reach a big audience. They brought my music to the people. They understood what I was trying to do. The jazz critics had no idea what I was trying to do. They couldn't place it anywhere. Indian music, African music, what is this? If it's not jazz it's not good, it was like that. But Talvin and Nitin really helped me and I'm really thankful to them.

AAJ: Recently you played a duo concert with Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan, and it's a reminder that jazz is just about everywhere in the world these days, even if the word has arguably ceased to have clear meaning.

TG: I think it was very good marketing at that time, I would say. They call it jazz but everybody plays what they like. Tigran is a very talented musician and he's not only playing jazz. Just because he's improvising doesn't mean it's jazz. It was Armenian-Indian... I don't know what to call it.

AJ: You're working on a very interesting crossover project at the moment, and one that would be difficult to pin a name on; can you tell us a little about this project?

TG: I'm doing a classical project with woodwinds; the music of Bartok and Bach, Takemitsu and Phillip Glass with my music. I'm putting this together now. It's crossover but in a different style with contemporary sounds.

AAJ: That sounds like a potent cocktail.

TG: It is, and I have no idea what you would call it.

AAJ: It doesn't need a name. You play world music festivals, you play jazz festivals, you play classical festivals; do you feel that your music is better accepted, better understood and better appreciated than in the past?

TG: I don't think about that. I just do what I would normally do. I just do it very honestly. Thanks to the blessing of my spiritual guru Ranjit Barat I am not worried, I have no doubts, I am not afraid. If they like it good; if they don't, it's ok. But I will continue to play the way I do and I will not waver.

Selected Discography

Trilok Gurtu with Simon Phillips & NDR Big Band, 21 Spices (Art of Groove, 2011)
Trilok Gurtu, Massical (BHM Productions, 2009)
Trilok Gurtu, Arkeology (Promo, 2007)
Trilok Gurtu & The Frikyiwa Family, (Frikyiwa, 2006)
Trilok Gurtu, Broken Rhythms (Worldmusicnet, 2004)
Robert Miles & Trilok Gurtu, Miles_Gurtu (Salt Records, 2004)
Pharaoh Sanders, With A Heartbeat (Evolver, 2003)
Trilok Gurtu, Remembrance (Emarcy, 2002)
Trilok Gurtu, Beat of Love (Blue Thumb, 2001)
Nitin Sawhney, Prophecy (V2 Records, 2001)
Trilok Gurtu, African Fantasy (Blue Thumb, 2000)
Trilok Gurtu, Kathak (Mintaka, 1999)
Trilok Gurtu, Glimpse (Siva America, 1997)
Joe Zawinul, My People (Escapade, 1996)
John McLaughlin, The Promise (Verve, 1996)
Jan Garbarek, Invisible World (1995, ECM)
Trilok Gurtu, Crazy Saints (CMP. 1993)
John McLaughlin Trio, Que Alegria (Verve, 1992)
Oregon, Always, Never and Forever (Intuition, 1991)
John McLaughlin Trio, Live at The Royal Festival Hall (Polygram records, 1990)
Trilok Gurtu, Usfret (CPM, 1987)
L. Shankar, Song For Everyone (ECM,. 1985)
Philippe Catherine, End of August (WEA, 1978)
Charlie Mariano, October Inner City, 1977)
Aktuala, La Terra (Bla Bla, 1974)

Photo Credits
Page 1: Paolo Iammarrone
Page 2: Courtesy of Trilok Gurtu
Page 3, 4: Elio Guidi

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