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Trilok Gurtu: Stirring the Big Old Pot

Ian Patterson By

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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.

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