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Jazz flowers, but a touch quietly, in Bangalore

Their riffs may not be loud, but Bangalore has a good number of jazz musicians worthy of note, writes JAZZEBEL.

Frank Dubier (above, in white shirt); Amit Heri (with head-band) and his group.

RAMAN — HIS full name is S. Raman Iyer — is a well built, soft-spoken, and superlatively polite man of 40 whom I had the luck to meet and hear for the first time just a week ago. For some two months he's been performing Thursday to Saturday night every week at A Pinch of Jazz, the theme restaurant at Central Park Hotel that has been maintaining an authentic jazz personality for several years.

Raman plays tenor and soprano saxophones and, occasionally, flute, backed by Zach on keyboards, Victor on electric bass guitar, and Lester on drums. His repertoire mostly comprises swing and be-bop standards, treated in hard bop style, that is, with dollops of solo improvisation by every member of the group. And he's well equipped to use this idiom: the trio backing him are all fluent both in ensemble play, where each member gets in enough noticeability and no one drowns the others out, and in solo work. Raman is especially partial to the repertoires of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, emulating the latter in vocals on some numbers.

Raman's immediate predecessor at A Pinch of Jazz was Frank Dubier, a neat and trim septuagenerian who learnt music from his parents in Chennai six decades ago and began going on stage with them almost immediately.

Dubier primarily plays trumpet but he also picks up tenor sax, flute, and E-flat horn from time to time. To hear him do Ellington's "C-Jam Blues" or Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" is a thrilling experience.

When I heard him two years ago, his competent backing musicians on drums, bass guitar and keyboards were content to let him take the bulk of the solos. Since then I believe there's been some turnover (for the worse) in the ensemble. But the old warhorse soldiers on: currently he's playing a couple of times a week at Kapalua on Airport Road. When I first heard him a decade ago at a celebratory concert at the Oberoi, he had an almost full-fledged big band with a female vocalist, and he opened with the dramatic Ellington theme tune "Take the `A' Train". Like Raman, he too is partial to the Ellington and Armstrong canon, but is influenced by be-bop and hard bop.

Dubier's predecessor at A Pinch of Jazz was Gerard Machado, a fluent guitarist who at the time numbered Raman among his backing group.

He has lately been doing occasional gigs at restaurants and bars, as well as at corporate sector events, which I'm told are laying on jazz in quite a big way nowadays. I caught up with him some months ago at Mars 2211 on Castle Street. His repertoire too is basically swing/be-bop/hard bop with some bossa nova thrown, but his drummer, espousing a rock style, was loud enough to drown out the keyboardist and bassist.

Machado was joined by two guests: Radha Thomas, an accomplished and veteran singer, and Ramji Chandran, who edits a fortnightly city tabloid but also wields a mean guitar.

Machado himself knows the jazz canon well and is a good improviser whose ability his sidemen could not detract from. It's over a decade since I saw him in an earlier avatar at a Jazz Yatra, when he jammed with the famous vainika Suma Sudhindra in what I thought, at the time, was a rather unsuccessful attempt to fuse jazz and Carnatic music.

Certainly his fidelity to straight-ahead jazz has been recognised by the doyen of Indian jazz, Louis Banks, who invited him to Mumbai to represent Bangalore in this year's Jazz Yatra, which was devoted to the mainstream idiom.

His performance there was fortified by the presence of both Frank Dubier and Radha Thomas.

V. Raman plays the tenor and soprano sax, and occasionally, the flute.

Banks himself has dabbled extensively in jazz-Indian classical fusion, more than once before Bangalore audiences with the Karnataka College of Percussion and with Amit Heri. Heri, a Bangalore native, who studied with distinction at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has himself jammed frequently with the KCP and been on international concert tours with Trilok Gurtu, a world-famous exponent of jazz drums, tabla and other percussion instruments including many used in African music. Heri is as at home playing "Now's the Time" and other Charlie Parker standards, sitting in with Dubier and his boys, or fusing jazz with Indian music.

He has recently been playing the restaurant and bar circuit as well, where he's been laying more stress on straight-ahead and Latin jazz standards, apart from his own compositions, all rendered in mainstream style. Perhaps tailoring the performance to such occasions, he's been adding a vocalist (Arati Rao) to his electric bass guitarist (most often Keith Peters) and drummer (Hamesh). Peters, though highly accomplished, is a bit shy of taking solos, while Hamesh is subtle and skilful. Heri sometimes gets Martin Visser (a Chennai-based tenor and soprano saxman) to join him, when they parcel out between them the solos that are otherwise mostly Heri's responsibility. Heri has been flowering as an improviser since I first heard him a decade ago with a group of colleagues from Berklee.

He's also been composing and performing music for his wife Madhu Nataraj Heri's contemporary dance shows, and is now scoring and recording the music for Mahesh Dattani's film Mango Souffle.

When it comes out, that might be the first film I'll see in over fifteen years!

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