He could have been an excellent mathematician or an excellent musician. Madhav Chari chose to be the latter. C.K. MEENA meets the jazz genius who considers the piano the greatest instrument on earth
When Madhav Chari talks of motifs, idea, theme and vocabulary, of developing a concept, editing the first draft and creating a new ending, you could swear he's talking about writing an article. But he is in fact describing how he composes a jazz piece on his piano.Writing, mathematics and music were his interests while growing up. Although math won out over literature early on, music won out over math in the end - and a spectacular conquest it was, for he shelved his Ph.D. program for a musical career.
Drama as metaphor
But literature does come in handy when he explains what jazz is all about. Chari used drama as a metaphor during the workshop he held as a prelude to his concert recently at St John's Auditorium, presented by Worldspace radio's jazz channel Riff. The structure of a play is set in stone, he pointed out. The acts and scenes, once scripted, cannot be changed. The actors must stick to their given roles, costumes and dialogues. Now imagine that the plot varies and the order of the scenes changes from day to day. Imagine that an actor is not given his dialogue; he has to make up his lines as he goes along, and he could be suddenly ordered to speak in iambic pentameter. This is what a jazz musician does every time he performs.Music has always played a major role in the script of Madhav Chari's life. His Tamil Brahmin father was into western music and not Carnatic, which was not unusual considering that he had studied in Ooty's Lawrence public school, was a resident of Kolkata who spoke only functional Tamil, and was influenced by the Brahmo Samaj. Kolkata in the Seventies was heaven for the western music fan. Chari says: "My parents took me to two concerts every month: one classical, one jazz." The USIS at that time would regularly bring down jazz bands that were A-listed in New York, and Kolkata was one of the "hit points" along with Mumbai and Delhi. He heard Chico Freeman, and Clark Terry and his orchestra, live. He listened to Pam Crane, Kolkata's celebrated jazz singer. "In the late Seventies, Louis Banks played a two-and-a-half hour public concert in our house."Chari was entranced by the piano. "Not the violin or the trumpet. The piano was talking to me." He played it by ear when he was just five at the house of a family friend, and considers it the greatest instrument on the planet. Kolkata, which he calls "a very rich city, intellectually", also gave him the gift of "intellectual curiosity". He read widely and was by his own account a precocious lad who would end up talking to his parent's friends more than to his peers. When he was 15, he says, he "got" Coltrane, understood the emotional content of his music. He was hooked. Jazz affected the core of his being. "My body would react in a different way, as though I had hit a motherlode of electricity." When in '85 he got a full scholarship to the under-graduate program in mathematics at Dartmouth, U.S.A., he was glad to be in a country that would keep his musical interests alive. He was part of the college jazz ensemble and later played with the great drummer Max Roach. Between '91 and '92, he played jazz professionally in Boston. He hung out with Wynton Marsalis, played with Kenny Barron and Henry Threadgill.
The warning signs
Academics took him to Illinois. He was one-and-a-half years into his Ph.D. program, in '95, when "the warning sign" hit him. "It was very clear, the fork in the road. I could either be an excellent mathematician or an excellent musician - and I had the potential to do either." He chose to make a career out of jazz, moving straight to the Big Apple in '96 and bypassing the usual route of the jazz musician which is from Chicago to New York. "It was very uphill, my career in New York. Persistence was the only way." He would hand out tapes of his music to well-known musicians and wait for them to get back to him. Since he wasn't good at socialising and being seen in the right circles, he was forced to learn "the operating mechanisms" of the business the hard way. He ended up playing in several U.S. cities, and later in places like Paris and Singapore.Chari's limitless passion for jazz is evident not only when he performs but when he speaks on the subject. "Unlike the self-contained universe of Carnatic music, jazz regenerates itself, pulls in energies from other sources. It is a dynamic, evolving knowledge stream." He doesn't care for fusion, though. In New York he had formed a fusion group called Nomadic Subjects, which was featured on the PBS television channel. "I didn't like it," he says. "I understood the limitations of fusion. A lot of people are doing world music and fusion without understanding jazz." He is also wary of avant garde. The traditional art form, he believes, is something you have to first go through in order to - no, not break the rules, but "try to extend" the form.Since 2004, Chari has been running a jazz and modern music outreach programme from Chennai. Chari the teacher was on display in Bangalore (the starting point of his four-city concert tour) when he spoke on rhythm and structure, the origins of jazz, its African roots and its Cuban and Brazilian manifestations. He used the "Happy Birthday" tune to demonstrate the difference between variation and improvisation. But when he spoke of the blues as an "emotional kinetic energy zone" you thought to yourself, here comes the mathematician again!Those who missed his concert can catch the Madhav Chari Trio, which includes a bass player and a drummer from France, in October courtesy the French Ministry of Culture.