Much to cheer about the future of jazz in India

Young independent musicians and bands in India are shaping the future of jazz with unique sounds and arrangements

Updated - November 16, 2022 04:03 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2022 06:12 pm IST

Lydian Nadhaswaram

Lydian Nadhaswaram | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At the BlueBop Café in Mumbai, the Friday night crowd enjoys jazz standards. Shrea Suresh aka Shrae, vocalist of the band Jazzafools, sings old classics like ‘One Note Samba’ written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and ‘Cheek To Cheek’ composed by Irving Berlin. Most musicians are in their early or mid-twenties, and saxophonist Harsh Bhavsar is the youngest, at 18.

Cut to jazz clubs in Delhi-NCR, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, and Bengaluru, and one wouldn’t be surprised to come across numerous jazz musicians aged below 30. Besides the older songs, they play modern jazz, electronic jazz and the 1970s jazz-rock fusion. Naturally, this is something that pleases India’s best known jazz exponent, keyboardist Louiz Banks. “Today’s youngsters are not frightened of jazz. Despite the challenges, the future of the genre is bright,” he beams.

Rhythm Shaw

Rhythm Shaw | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Rhythm Shaw

With the concert scene having opened up after the pandemic, jazz promoters are optimistic, simply because of the presence of many young talents. Piano Man Jazz Club founder Arjun Sagar Gupta mentions 26 promising musicians from New Delhi. Besides vocalists, guitarists, bassists, pianists and drummers, his list also includes saxophonists Agneya Singh and Aniket Chaturvedi, and trumpeter Aman Gupta.

Some artistes are being hailed as the future of Indian jazz. Guitarists Rhythm Shaw and Kush Upadhyay, bassist Mohini Dey and saxophonist Jarryd Rodrigues are all in their mid-twenties, and pianist Rahul Wadhwani and bassist Avishek Dey are in their early-thirties, but immensely popular on the circuit. In fact, in 2016, Kush, Rhythm and Mohini became part of the jazz-rock band Louiz Banks Guitar Synergy along with drummer Gino Banks.

Talented teens

Some teenagers are highly rated. A few months ago, 17-year-old Chennai pianist Lydian Nadhaswaram released his album Chromatic Grammatic, featuring renowned international artistes such as drummer Dave Weckl, saxophonist Eric Marienthal and guitarist Frank Gambale. Besides being a composer, Lydian is a talented drummer too.

Guitarist Amithav Gautam

Guitarist Amithav Gautam | Photo Credit: Courtesy: Amithav Gautam

Chennai-based guitarist Amithav Gautam, who is also 17, first impressed audiences with his blues and blues-rock skills, before venturing into jazz. He’s recorded YouTube videos of songs by Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown and Larry Carlton with senior vocalist Radha Thomas and bassist Keith Peters.

Besides venues such as Piano Man in New Delhi and Gurugram, Skinny Mo’s in Kolkata and BeBop Café and Veranda in Mumbai, which specialise in jazz shows, young artistes get exposure in auditorium events like Jazz Day, Piano Day and Drum Day. While Louiz Banks curates the first two shows, his son Gino handles Drum Day. Says the senior Banks, “Gino and bassist Sheldon D’Silva meet a lot of young musicians, and I’m surprised by the amount of fresh talent they talk of.”

Mohini Dey

Mohini Dey | Photo Credit: DEEPAK KR

Musicians have interesting stories about how they got into jazz. Some naturally inherited the love from their parents while others got introduced to the music at the right place. According to Piano Man’s Arjun Sagar Gupta, many began playing for fun at the venue’s Sunday jam sessions. “However, they soon got serious about the genre, and began understanding the language of jazz.”

Saxophonist Harsh Bhavsar started off by playing Bollywood tunes in Ahmedabad. He got exposed to jazz through a recording of late saxophonist Michael Brecker. “I discovered a new world out there from Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins to Joshua Redman and David Sanborn,” he says. He played a few tracks with Louiz Banks and his quintet during the Jazz Day concert at Mumbai’s Tata Theatre in April.

Amithav was fascinated by the swing rhythm in jazz tunes. With a basic foundation in the Blues, he was quick to notice the Blues tinges in some compositions. “My guitar teacher, Vivek sir, introduced me to George Benson’s music, and from there I heard other guitarists like Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel, besides some of the older horn players like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon,” he says.

Jazzafools

Jazzafools | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shrae, vocalist of Jazzafools, says it is important to know and perform different types of jazz. “We vary our set depending on the audience and the venue. At times we stick to standards, and sometimes we play contemporary jazz, funk and neo-soul.” Others incorporate some Indian elements too.

Though his album Chromatic Grammatic mainly explores modern jazz, Lydian Nadhaswaram has roped in bansuri player S. Akash and veena exponent Rajhesh Vaidhya. Bombay Brass, a group formed in 2020 by saxophonist Rhys Sebastian, now 33, adds Indo-fusion and Bollywood retro to its basic blend of jazz, funk and Latino.

According to Louis Banks, it is important for jazz musicians to follow both traditional and newer jazz. “Many of them only like the modern, funky stuff, and have thus missed out on many treasures. I also would suggest that many of them learn to read and write music, as that’s a big asset. I myself refer to manuscripts I wrote 30 or 40 years ago,” he says.

Louis Banks

Louis Banks | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He also feels that though young musicians are writing good original tunes, they need to understand the system in a broader way. “It’s important to know the nuances of different instruments besides the one you play. This is specially true for fusion. Even as musicians, I notice there are many talented players but they need to fine tune their art so that they could play with the rhythm section, and not just shine in solos.”

One challenge musicians face is that shows may be erratic, and that jazz is not as paying as other genres. Thus, while some are lured by Bollywood projects, advertising jingles or corporate gigs, others take up day jobs or even teach music, either at institutes or online.

Jarryd Rodrigues

Jarryd Rodrigues | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

There’s also the lack of adequate corporate support. Often, sponsors will back jazz shows only if big names are involved. That, of course, isn’t a story restricted to young artistes in India. It’s the same thing all over the world, and even applies to the older generation of musicians. The heartening thing is that many young jazz players are looking for the right balance. The members of Jazzafools, for instance, do it with their project Agla Station Jazz, where they play jazz versions of retro Bollywood hits at corporate shows and private events. ‘Khoya Khoya Chand’ or ‘Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si’ in jazz style, anyone?

The writer is a Mumbai-based independent journalist.

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