MUSIC Jazz saxophonist Phil Scarff is well-known for adapting Hindustani classical ragas on the saxophone. He says that his primary model is the shehnai and his secondary model, the bansuri
Phil Scarff adapts Hindustani Classical music to the soprano saxophone. He is a well-known jazz saxophonist too and has made appearances at leading music festivals across the globe, including India’s JazzYatra, the Guelph Jazz Festival, Canada, Ghana’s Panafest, among others.
When asked of traditionalist’s criticism of fusion music, Phil argues: “There are very, very few traditions that have no influence from other traditions. At a performance at JazzYatra once, an audience member objected to us not following the technique of raga Kalyani as we had named our performance ‘Kalyani’. So I explained that the recital is based on Kalyani, but does not follow it completely.”
Phil is well-versed in Hindustani Classical music, having trained under Shreeram Devasthali, leading Sundri artist Suryakant Khaladkar, shehnai player Shyamrao Lonkar and in Boston and USA under Sitar master Peter Row and vocalists Kalpana Mazumdar and Warren Senders.
Phil was recently in the city to perform in Prayag , presented by Bangalore School of Music, held at Alliance Francaise.
Phil gave a soulful rendition of the saxophone to the accompaniment of the tabla and piano, played by Rajeev Devasthali and Marcus Daniel, respectively. Phil says that while playing Hindustani Classical music, the Shehnai is his primary model and his secondary model, the bansuri.
He lists out his favourite ragas without missing a beat. “Yaman, Rageshree, Saraswati, Bhagyashree.”
He found Bhairavi very challenging, but eventually mastered it. Phil adds that it is probably not so much a question of whether a particular raga suits the instrument, but how comfortable he feels playing it.
Is it true that not all ragas need to be prolonged for a powerful performance? “It depends. Some serious ragas are more amenable to a prolonged performance and the lighter ones to a shorter performance.”
Phil has also learnt a few Carnatic ragas. “I have made a conscious decision not to learn the nuances of Carnatic music because it’s a complex system. So when I play a particular Carnatic raga , I follow its basic rules and put in my interpretation of Hindustani Classical music. For example, I have worked with cross-over ragas such as Kalyani, a Carnatic raga and Yaman, a Hindustani classical raga. They are not identical, but are very close.”
Phil was intrigued by Hindustani Classical music when he heard Bismillah Khan’s rendition of the shehnai. “I was struck by the haunting sound of the instrument. The shehnai shares some sounds with the saxophone. I have heard Bismillah Khan perform live. His music is phenomenal; it has great energy.”
Phil also leads the world-jazz ensemble, Natraj. “Natraj was founded in Boston with Jerry Leake and Michael Rivard. It’s been 25 years that we have been together. We initially experimented with basic sounds and evolved a unique sound. We have played consistently with guest artistes from India and Africa,” concludes Phil.