Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen of the Norwegian group Food jammed with Prakash Sontakke. They tell Harshini Vakkalanka that the essence of jazz is improvisation
The phrase is food for thought, but in the case of Iain Ballamy and Thomas Stronen, it's Food for the ears. If you have ears whose staple diet is jazz, you would probably know that Food was initially a quartet, but they are now a duo who regularly play with other artists. Currently, the artist happens to be the slide guitarist Prakash Sontakke. The Norwegian band was formed in the late Nineties and gave their first concert in 1998.
“As with most things, Iain and me met by accident through a common friend. We liked each other's music and decided we would play together. I was studying music in Norway then,” says Thomas, who plays the drums.
“Our first recording was live. We tried a studio recording with pre-composed music, but our trumpet player didn't like it. We gradually started playing more and more improvised music and we've now come to a stage where we play only improvised music. We try to use sounds, space, textures and contrast instead of tunes, rhythms and arrangements. It's riskier, but it's more exciting,” says Iain, who plays the saxophone.
Food has performed all over the world including Japan, U.S.A, Canada, China, India, Columbia and Romania.
“Here in Food, we step out of our boundaries and experience music on common ground. We don't play any specific type of music, what we play is just music,” adds Prakash.
All the members of the band agree that listening to music is a very important for improvisations.
“Whatever we listen to disappears inside and affects what comes out at the right time. It's like learning a language or historical facts. You don't know when you might need them but they come out at the right time. It's important for us to remain musically open,” explains Iain.
“Listening is also important because I need to see what any musical situation suggests when I'm playing. I try to create contrasts for harmonic rhythmic tension,” he adds.
“We have to think in terms of the sum of music, or music as a whole, or how my drums blend into the other instrument,” finishes Thomas.
The band is known for its progressive electronic jazz. But what is jazz, according to them?
“Everybody has a different opinion about jazz, some might say it's the legacy of black music, but I feel that jazz is improvisation. I feel that the tradition of jazz is not to recreate itself, but bring in the essence our current place and time. When we played at UB city, at the invitation of Bengaluru International Arts Festival (BIAF) recently, people could not believe that our music was improvised,” says Iain.
And it is their improvisation that inspires them to innovate. “The thought of what we are going to create inspires me. Every day I wake up in the morning and I start to work the music in my head, but when we actually play, the plan might change and we might end up playing something entirely different,” explains Thomas.
The duo met Prakash at mridangam player T.A.S. Mani's residence. The three of them had a jamming session and enjoyed Prakash's music so much that they invited him to play with them in Norway.
“I was completely new to their format of music which can be considered too complex or too simple depending on the mood,” says Prakash.
“I try and do justice to that mood. Ultimately, I don't know if I'm playing Hindustani or Western. I try to take forward the sounds in that moment. Since Hindustani classical or even Carnatic, is binding in terms of the raga or scale, here I can break out of a structure and this opens up possibilities at that moment. But it's equally challenging.”
“It's not always comfortable,” interjects Thomas. “You never know what can happen. I could start reacting to someone who is playing, but he might stop in the middle and then I'm on my own. Sometimes you get to play solo, sometimes you play together. The beauty is to invite the other and tempt them to play.”
Food plans to “make another record” with Prakash. “We also want to collaborate with larger groups like orchestras,” says Iain. “I think Western classical musicians are very skilled, but they don't improvise. We're also hoping to return to play here.”