Award-winning composer Vivek Maddala recommends must-listen instrumentals for your lockdown playlists

For your weekly Playlists, we go the instrumental route. Two-time Emmy-winning co-composer Vivek Maddala of ‘The Tom and Jerry Show’ and composer of 2020 PBS documentary ‘Asian Americans’ shares the scores which speak to him

Updated - November 27, 2021 04:12 pm IST

Published - May 12, 2020 03:08 pm IST - Hyderabad

Composer Vivek Maddala

Composer Vivek Maddala

Vivek Maddala is deeply passionate when it comes to articulating his love for different moods. Last year, Vivek won a Creative Arts Emmy Award in the category of ‘Outstanding Music Direction and Composition’ for his work on the Warner Bros. animated series The Tom and Jerry Show . But his most recent project is with PBS documentary series Asian Americans , which casts a new lens on the relationship between Asian diaspora and US history. Each of the five episodes contains wall-to-wall music, and Vivek created different themes which evolve alongside the storytelling throughout the series. One of the themes Vivek created is called “resigned acceptance,” which he explains is the decision of the oppressed to not rebel, but to unite and better their own situation as best as possible.


Asian Americans premiered in the United States on PBS on May 11. A release date and licensing deal for viewers in India is yet to be explored.

That said, MetroPlus asks Vivek what we should be listening to in regards to original scores and moods. Here’s what he suggests:

To de-stress and unwind...

Rachel Portman’s Chocolat(Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) is lush and cheerful, while slightly mischievous. She blends French Impressionism with Andean flutes and Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar work to create a mixture that feels slightly subversive—making it playful and fun. It’s a good palate cleanser, and the music is truly beautiful.

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is essential listening. Recorded in December of 1964, the group consists of Coltrane on tenor, legendary pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and one of my personal favorites, drummer Elvin Jones. The fact of it being a quartet recorded live means the orchestration is intrinsically austere, but nevertheless there’s a majestic—and perhaps even spiritual—quality to the compositions and performances. Clocking in at a little over half an hour, the music moves fluidly and is a near-perfect encapsulation of post-bop modal jazz.

To lift the spirits...

George Brooks’ Night Spinner (featuring tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain) is immediate and exhilarating. George is an extraordinary composer and performer, whose work exists at the intersection of Indian (Hindustani and Carnatic) music and jazz. This was the first album I heard from George Brooks, and it was my introduction to how truly stirring and gorgeous that amalgam can be.

At the risk of engaging in shameless self-promotion, I’d like to recommend my newest release, Asian Americans (Original Soundtrack ). The music takes you on an elating ride through nearly 200 years of immigration/diasporic/civil rights themes, and musically traverses gritty 19th-Century American textures and elegant European Romantic motifs, 20th-Century jazz, and modern-day brooding electronica. You’ll hear splashes of musical color from places as varied as Japan, Philippines, Korea, China, and India—all threaded into a cohesive musical fabric that transcends temporal or geographic boundaries. The album should be available by late May 2020, and I’m quite excited about it.

To get romantic...

Bill Evans’ You Must Believe in Spring is a quiet and beautiful album of Evans’ later period. His harmonic language subtly recalls that of Debussy and Ravel, as well as the likes of Ahmad Jamal, and to me it’s more about color than rhythm. Lay back and enjoy.

Good Things , by Aloe Blacc, channels classic R&B (Motown and Philly) while still sounding fresh. The album isn’t challenging to listen to, in the way a lot of Neo-Soul can be (with straight eights over quintuplet swing, etc.); and there’s an earnest, raw aching quality to Aloe Blacc’s singing, and he has clearly studied soul greats from Curtis Mayfield to Marvin Gaye, from Donny Hathaway to Raphael Saadiq. Listening to the album can be a moving experience.

Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly is a tour de force—warm, nostalgic, and wistful—a continuation of (and an evolution away from) Fagen’s previous work as half of the esteemed group Steely Dan. When I first heard the album years ago, I was a little disappointed that it lacked the biting and innovative guitar work characteristic of Steely Dan’s 1970s material... but upon subsequent listening I was captivated by The Nightfly’s romantic qualities.

Avoid pesky distractions...

John Williams’ Catch Me If You Can (Soundtrack) is one of my favorites. The score fuses film noir chord voicings with traditional orchestral contrapuntal writing, peppered with catchy non-diatonic jazz motifs. There’s a slight cat-and-mouse impression woven throughout the score, with Dan Higgins’ sax playing off Alan Estes’s vibes. The whole production is classy and professional, and while the sinuous melodies are extremely evocative musically, the album can easily sit in the background, subtly coloring whatever you’re doing in the foreground.

Album art for John Williams’ ‘Catch Me If You Can’

Album art for John Williams’ ‘Catch Me If You Can’

Bud Powell’s The Amazing Bud Powell wonderfully showcases his virtuosic style, as well as emotion and power. Picking up where Art Tatum left off, Powell became one of the pioneers of bebop, and had the rare mental acuity and inventiveness to challenge the unparalleled Charlie Parker harmonically and melodically. Bud Powell will get you in the zone.

Gino Vannelli’s Storm at Sunup is ostensibly a pop album, but really it’s a jazz-fusion album with exquisite performances from Graham Lear (drums), Richard Baker (Hammond organ), Jay Graydon (guitar), and of course, Gino Vannelli’s unparalleled vocals. It’s some of the most beautifully written and smartest produced material I’ve ever heard in a rock/jazz context.

A wildcard...

Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto, Op. 25 . Ginastera was an Argentine composer born in 1916, and this work is both heart-pounding and romantic. It incorporates modern 12-tone serialism, which can make for challenging listening to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, it’s extremely evocative and the final movement is a showstopper.

From there, I’d recommend listening to music by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and see where that takes you.

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