When West meets East

American musician George Brooks talks about his journey in music

October 25, 2012 07:55 pm | Updated 07:55 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

A jamming session at Devissaro's house. Photo: Special Arrangement

A jamming session at Devissaro's house. Photo: Special Arrangement

Music floats through the air in Devissaro and Daksha Sheth’s home at Vellayani. Strains of melody from the bansuri dance with the reverberating notes from the mohana veena as the drums lend beat to the notes from the keyboard. East meets West here, and harmoniously too. At the centre of all this action is American musician George Brooks, who is on the saxophone. It is obvious he is in a rush to get back to his music but he pauses for an interview. Known as the ‘leading American voice in Indian jazz fusion’, George has worked with various renowned Indian musicians like Zakir Hussain, Ronu Majumdar, and Hariprasad Chaurasia.

An “outgoing child”, George loved to perform from a young age. He enjoyed listening to the popular music of the day by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and Peter, Paul and Mary. He started playing the saxophone as part of his school band when he was 10. As he came from a non-musical family, he wasn’t “super-serious” about music. But at about 14, George was exposed to jazz and was hooked to it. “I used to listen to the greats of the day like Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Betty Carter.” And although he took to playing the saxophone more seriously, and started concentrating on jazz, music as a profession did not occur to him as he was considering a career as a doctor. However, while performing as part of a band in college he started learning more about the instrument, which in turn led him to drop out of college and join New England Conservatory of Music.

He was introduced to Indian music through a course on Indian classical music at the Conservatory and once he heard people like Ram Narayan and Hariprasad Chaurasia play, “was attracted to the intangible and spiritual element that I heard”. He came to India with his wife, Emily, and met and studied with Pandit Pran Nath. “I lived with him in the guru-shisya style and travelled and performed with him in various places. I love the power of the Indian notes, which I feel is different from the West,” says George.

It was tabla maestro Zakir Hussain who gave George his first real break as a musician. “He gave me my first recording contract in 1996. We released an album called ‘Lasting Impression’. This led to various concerts worldwide and another album called ‘Night Spinner’. He opened the door to all the Indian master musicians I have worked with,” says George who now runs his own music label called Earth Brother Music. “I have three albums under my label,” he says.

However, it is not just Hindustani musicians that George has collaborated with. He has also worked with Carnatic musicians like Ganesh-Kumaresh and U. Srinivas. “I have been working in this industry for 30 years. The first 20 years were strictly Hindustani type collaborations and in the last 10 years I have been working with Carnatic musicians. I have picked up a bit of the konnokols and korvais. A lot of the Hindustani musicians I work with now, especially the drummers, play the South Indian drumming style. In Indian fusion music, a lot of the rhythmic energy is derived from Carnatic now,” says George, who also works with Western artistes, “but mostly those who came out from traditional Western forms like the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues...”

So, what genre would he categorise his music? “I would call it George Brooks’ music. I think it is a personal statement. It is music that has been formed by jazz and by Indian classical music with the element of other things that I have heard. It is also spontaneous and intriguing.”

The musician is currently working with a young Indian musician called Mahesh Kale. “We are trying to take some well known bandishs and see if there is a way to bring a fresh flavour to them.” George will be performing today at 7.30 p.m. at Co-Bank Towers Auditorium with vocal and percussion ensemble Asima, directed by Devissaro, and instrumental ensemble Samatma.

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