Z-man Music

A bassist’s Indian diaries

John Taylor, Geddy Lee, John Paul Jones, John Entwistle, Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorious… Steve Zerlin has a lot in common with some of these all-time greats. He is a superbly talented bass guitarist like them. Even more interesting is Zerlin’s connection with India, Chennai specifically. The renowned bassist, who has toured India extensively for his performances, is in the city to share his musical expertise as a faculty member of the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music.

Often referred to fondly as ‘Z-Man’, Zerlin is an accomplished jazz musician (electric and acoustic bass), whose deep knowledge of the Eastern modalities has helped him adapt the bass guitar to Indian sounds.

However, Zerlin is the mainstay of the band ‘Facing East,’ which features Carnatic percussionists T. H. Subhash Chandran on the ghatam and Ganeshkumar on the ganjira, besides American flute virtuoso John Wubbenhorst and guitarist Jorge Zamorano. The album is a soothing blend of European and American elements and South Indian rhythms.

The Connecticut-born Zerlin has performed with many top artists such as Dennis Chambers, Carl Filipiak and Jack DeJohnette. He has released his own CD, ‘Still Life’, with Ed Sareth and some of Washington DC’s finest musicians, Dan Leonard, Bruce Guttridge, Peter Fraize and Victor Williams.

In this interview, he talks about his musical influences, his Indian experience and much else. Excerpts:

A little bit about your childhood and early years…

I grew up in Connecticut of the 1960s and early 1970s. Things were different then, less population and primitive technology. I would ride my bicycle everywhere, (something I do even now). Life was much simpler.

Taking the musical path…

I remember dancing to music when I was 4 or 5 years old. As a child, I would play neighbourhood baseball, being outside most of the time. My interests were many and varied. I am not sure that I ‘chose’ music; it was more like Music chose me. I started playing the trumpet at 11. Piano figured in there somewhere. I was 14, when I got a bass guitar. That stuck. I was in a band before I actually had the bass.

Playing with friends was a constant throughout high school, including the Jazz Big Band at school. I was prepared well enough to attend the Berklee College of Music in 1972. I remember hearing Miles Davis and other jazz records from my parents’ turntable before I started collecting rock albums as a teenager and learning bass directly from those influences.

Early musical influences…

Until going to Berklee (which was the only place I could go as an electric bassist), I didn’t really play any jazz besides the school band which was more a pre-cursor to that style of music, not really what jazz has come to mean for me over the years. It was an irresistible interest that I pursued out of love of improvisation and the way I felt from listening to, learning about, and also playing with like minded players, at Berklee, and afterwards.

Jazz is mostly free style yet with some set rules. Comment.

It would not be entirely accurate to refer to jazz as ‘mostly free style’. It is, however, accurate to say there are ‘set rules’, organised repeating forms and patterns, specific harmonic chord progressions. Experienced players are able to use the prescribed musical settings as platforms for exercising freedom of expression through improvisation that may sound ‘free style,’ but actually involves a great deal of inherent structure. In my case, I have played various styles over the course of 40 plus years – from Rock, R&B, Soul, Funk and Jazz to Brazilian, what is often called ‘Latin’ including Cuban, Central and South American music, and of course, extensively with Indian artists.

Brush with Indian music…

A friend of mine was into Indian music and studied with Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia. I learned and progressed over 15 years of playing with him and the mostly Indian percussionists we played and recorded with.


My first collaboration was with Sundeep Burman in the U.S. for the band Facing East with John Wubbenhorst (who was a student Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia). Then we came to India in 2000 and played with  Subhash Chandran (ghatam) and Ganesh Kumar (ganjira) in the band.  I continued playing with other musician  across the country such as Rishab Dhar (tabla player) from Kolkata and Pradhi Unna Singh (pianist). I really enjoyed playing with them. I have also recorded with Sanjay Mishra on his album ‘Blue Incantation’ which includes guest artist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. 

On television talent hunts and reality shows…

I don't have a TV. Have never owned one, which says something about my opinion of the TV culture. I grew up on it and mostly abandoned it when I began thinking for myself around age 20. Well, such shows homogenise culture and hypnotise people. It’s not a short discussion, the planet is suffering the excesses and indulgences of the human-race, so-called, and I am a voice of criticism.

Your experiences with the Swarnabhoomi team…

I keep coming back to Swarnabhoomi because it is a lively learning environment and I can see the rapid and inspired growth in the students here. There is a great deal of talent here and it is my pleasure to be part of the growth I see. Exposing students to music they are unfamiliar with that requires ‘educated’ ears and facilitating their growth has been rewarding, for them and me.

Your favourite artist/s…

The iconic Jaco Pastorius and the prominent group of musicians he worked with in Weather Report including Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul. Marcus Miller, Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock, Miles, Gary Willis and Scott Henderson/Tribal Tech, John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, a long list of jazz artists, The Beatles, Jack Bruce, Hendrix, Jethro Tull, The Doors, Edgar Winter, ... and an impossibly long list to detail. I'll surely forget someone!

Current projects… 

I am working with tabla player Broto Roy from Kolkata, who lives in the U.S. We just completed recording five tracks for his new album which includes a 30-minute track in Raga Malkuns. Meanwhile, I had discussed a book project with Ghatam Karthick whom I met in 2010 at SAM (we were teaching together). We discussed about collaborating on a book on ‘Rhythmic concepts, approaches to similarities and difference between Western and Indian Musician in Live Performance.’ We both were busy so it hasn't happened yet. But now, I shall get in touch with him again and start discussions!

One thing you love about Chennai…

Tender coconuts!

Your dream would be…

My dream is that Mankind wakes up before it is too late. That we become sensitive enough to stop perpetrating crimes of aggression and destruction against ALL non-human life forms on this planet.

The future…

Keep growing as a musician, sharing what I’ve learned, and reminding people we don’t need to murder and slaughter to survive.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 9:02:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/a-bassists-indian-diaries-steve-zerlin/article7061317.ece

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