Giving Indian jazz a voice

He is happy playing music for those who want to listen. He's happy playing all over the world, sharing the stage with some of the world's finest musicians.

He has shared the stage with Sting, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, John Laughlin, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Mike Stern, Alanis Morissette, Cheb Mami, Jimmy Page, Robert Miles, Brian May to sample out a few from his portfolio.

He's played at the biggest festivals across the globe including Berlin Jazz Festival, Monteux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, London Jazz Festival, Vancouver Jazz festival, Victoria, Paris, Rome, WOMAD fests in UK, Singapore, Jazz Yatras over the years to drop a few names from a long list of places that he's jazzed up.

But, in spite of all that jazz, Amit Heri is a simple, down-to-earth, unassuming musician who has pretty much the same traits as the music he plays — from the soft to the intense, peppered with influences ranging from the Indian to Latin to almost any genre you can think of. "If I have to figure out what exactly I play, it's going to be a big task," says Amit in a chat with Sudhish Kamath, strumming up his guitar with Keith Peters and drummer Hamesh from Bangalore for company.

THE TRIO has just finished with a round of rehearsals, as the rain pours its heart out in the city outside. At The Park, the Amit Heri Group finds itself at home, as the three continue to fondle their instruments as they chat about what they love most.

"Jazz," Amit starts the interview, "can be for anyone. Yes, it is an acquired taste in the sense that you tend to enjoy it more when you understand what's happening much like Carnatic music. And no, it's not always the music for that lazy, laid-back evenings, jazz can also be quite intense."

Amit, later that evening, was playing for the first time with Keith and his regular for the last one year, Hamesh. "This time, it's mainly my compositions that we are playing. It is a lot of funk, jazz rock, Indian influences and lots of groove," he says quietly as we ask him about his agenda for the evening.

Considering that Jazz is among the most `alive' forms of music given its affinity to change, we then ask Amit if there was anything called "Indian jazz", emerging with all the desi influences.

"It is too early to coin terms. But there is definitely Indian jazz which is different in its own way... there is so much of Indian musical influences in the jazz we play. But jazz as a musical form has always absorbed different cultures. So it's quite natural that our music has absorbed from our culture. It is in many ways similar to Carnatic music," he says.

Similar but still different, he quickly adds. "It's a totally different language," as Keith prompts him. "Technically, there is so much of improvisation in both jazz as well as classical music. So that way, they are similar," Amit explains.

In spite of all that evolution, jazz in India hasn't really spread its influence across the masses, Amit admits. "For there's not been that much of an exposure. Any kind of music needs to be presented with a certain frequency. A lot depends on the kind of platforms, concert settings and awareness. In Europe, there are so many organisations that keep jazz going. In India, we need to involve people with jazz music to keep it going. There are very few organisations to do that," he says.

It all boils down to promotion. Our music channels do not play alternative kinds of music, they feed people with strictly popular music. "But, I don't think you can expect them to play jazz. They don't even play Indian classical music. They want to air popular music because that is what their audience wants."

But that does not disturb Amit at all. He is happy playing music for those who want to listen. He's happy playing all over the world, sharing the stage with some of the world's finest musicians. "When the audience is smaller, the music becomes much more intimate and interactive. I can see the reaction of the people listening to the music, compared to playing for a crowd," says the guitarist composer who grew up listening to Mahavishnu — John McLaughlin and George Benson.

The Amit Heri Group is pretty confident that jazz will survive in India in spite of "step-motherly treatment" from record companies, music channels and market demands.

Jazz musicians across the globe have strutted various worlds of music. Amit Heri, for the record, has recently done film music — offbeat and replete with influences from all over the world. He just got done with the background score and the music for Mahesh Dattani's `Mango Souffle'.

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