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Not just jazz, by the way

As young musicians incorporate jazz melodies they once heard in their grandfather's Fiats into their rock and electronica-inspired tunes, indie music around the country is all set to break barriers that set jazz aside as music for the aged and elite

You wouldn't look twice at this group of five guys sitting at a chai tapri in Kandivli on an unusually hot November afternoon during a busy weekday. But, if you see them perform live at a night club, you'd get a feel of their popularity -- the Traveling River Band (TRB) is a favourite among music connoisseurs and has a following that runs into a few thousands on social networking websites, including Reverbnation, a popular indie music site.


Traveling River Band played folk and alternative rock when they started
out in 2009. Last year, the Mumbai band -- seen here lounging at a chai
shop in Kandivli -- began to incorporate jazz and blues into their
repertoire. Pic/Ashish Rane


The Mumbai-based band, comprising 23 year-old Akash Sharma, 28 year-old Miklu Baruah, 32 year-old Asit Adsul, 31 year-old Rony Jose and 28 year-old Jack Saha is one of the many that have emerged in the past few years that fuse jazz and blues with their own electronica-inspired tunes.


Something Relevant, the Mumbai-based band that was picked by the
Indian Council for Cultural Relations in 2009 to perform at the Java
Jazz Festival in Jakarta and tour Indonesia and South Korea. The band
was formed as a rock and metal band at Malhar, the annual college
festival of St Xavier College, Mumbai, in 2004. Four months ago, they
decided to go on a sabbatical -- the seven members enrolled themselves
for a six-month course on jazz music in the Swarnabhoomi Academy
of Music that opened in Chennai earlier this year. Pic/Vikas Munipalle


The two year old-band that once had a strong folk and alternative rock character began experimenting with jazz sometime late last year, influenced by the likes of Billy Holiday, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Even as metal and electronica scale popularity charts in the indie music scene today -- the recent hysteria generated by the Metallica concert is a case in point -- a crop of indie musicians are beginning to learn jazz and incorporate it into their music. As a result, they are also changing the music business for the coming generations, by jazzing up popular music forms.

The current scene
Something Relevant set up in 2004, is one of the most popular names in the indie music scene. They have performed at various venues including the annual Edinburg Fringe Festival held last year in the UK. Four months ago, they decided to go on a sabbatical -- the seven members enrolled themselves for a six-month diploma course, 80 per cent of which concentrates on jazz, in the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music that opened in Chennai earlier this year. There, they are learning jazz music from international musicians; fellow students include the daughters of Leslie Lewis and Loy Mendonsa.

Aazin Printer, Aalok Padhye, Ryan Sadri (who plays the Saxophone), Luis Chico, Tanmay Bhattacherjee, Stuart DaCosta and Jehangir Jehangir have two months left to complete their course. Earlier this year, Akash Sharma, the guitarist and composer of the TRB did something similar. After clearing the rigorous audition that Mumbai-based musician and teacher Joe D'Costa conducts, Sharma underwent a six-month jazz guitar class to understand the feel and basic technique required for playing jazz music.

"When I started teaching in Mumbai about four years ago, I would only get about five or six students interested in learning and professionally pursuing jazz," says  D'Costa, who conducts classes at the Joe D'Costa Academy, Borivli. "Now I have about 25 students in every batch. There is an anxiousness to know more," he says.

Sunil Sampat, contributing editor for Rolling Stone India, jazz music writer and a member of the National Center for Performing Arts Jazz Committee has made it his mission to try and promote the genre of music among young musicians. "There is a misconception that jazz is not popular. I have spoken to students at popular college festivals like Mood Indigo and Malhar, and the response (towards jazz) has been fantastic. There are some die-hard fans among youngsters," he says.

BlueFROG, a live act venue in Lower Parel, started out as a jazz club when it launched in  December 2007. While the focus may have changed to make space for other genres, the club has seen an increase in the number of bands and performers playing music heavily influenced by Jazz and Blues in the past year.

"There has been a rise in jazz performances at the club. In fact, the latest two albums that we have produced under our record label have been by Soulmate, a band that specialises in blues, and Kendraka that plays jazz fusion," says Emmanuella de Decker, head of Live Programming at blueFROG.

The changing shape of jazz
While the experts may hem and haw about the idea of a revival, many are of the opinion that the interest in jazz is not what it once was. "Jazz has always been a part and parcel of the music scene in the country, but doesn't command massive audiences that rock, metal and other genres do. It's a niche section of musicians, who play for a very niche audience, so one can't prove that its popularity has been growing. Jazz has seen better days in India," says Bobin James, executive editor, Rolling Stone.

Nigel Rajaratnam, 24, who has learnt to play the saxophone, piano and the guitar in the United States, says there aren't enough venues that are willing to promote jazz. "The place where I studied was packed with jazz musicians, who you could collaborate, or simply  jam with. In India, it's difficult to find people with the same musical taste, the same level of skill and expertise, the same dedication. Even if you do, there aren't enough venues to assure you a gig," he rues.

The concerns raised by James and Rajaratnam hold true for pure jazz, however, it is evident that there is an increasing curiosity especially among youngsters about jazz, keen to incorporate it into more popular music styles like rock, hip hop and electronica.  "What has changed worldwide in the last 25 years is the definition of jazz -- it has widened. Hip-hop has been incorporated, and rap has emerged from it. I think people are confused about what jazz stands for now," Sampat points out.

D'Costa agrees. Most of his students, he says, are learning jazz along with other forms of music. "Pure jazz doesn't do much for the youth but once they step on the foot pedal  and produce jazz rock, then it starts to interest them. And that is how jazz is making a comeback. Everybody from electronica to rock to hip hop artists are using jazz heavily. When you use saxophone or the steel flute, in any form of music, you use jazz lines to highlight the instrument," he says. "The new forms may hurt pure jazz lovers and artists but experimentation is probably the way to go," D'Costa feels.

A natural progression
For musicians, the move to  jazz is a natural progression. "It begins with trying to understand pop, then rock, where you show youth and aggression, then to metal. But then you get to a point where you stop and ask yourself where you are going," explains D'Costa. Members of both bands, Something Relevant and TRB, started off playing metal and rock. Jose, the vocalist for TRB says, "When I entered college I would listen to hard rock bands like Def Leppard. The first band I saw perform was a metal band. I started singing for them."

"We got a lot of gigs, the shows were getting bigger and better and we also performed abroad. But then we realised that we didn't want to continue the same way and it was time to polish our skills further," says Sadri of Something Relevant. For Sharma of TRB, learning jazz and blues helps him hone his musician's technique. "Anybody who is serious about music, at some point in life, has either studied jazz or undergone jazz training. It's definitely the next step for any accomplished musician."

Jazz is an improvised form of music for which you need a lot of skill. "Once you learn how to improvise, you can play pretty much any kind of music and excel in it," says de Decker of blueFROG. Easy access to information and songs online has also encouraged accomplished young musicians to learn the form. "Back in the day, the only way to learn something was to spend time with musicians or hunt for a good teacher. Now, with the Internet, people can just listen to a song, download it, read up a beginner's manual on Jazz that's available online and learn the basics.  Accessibility plays a big part in the promotion of jazz," feels D'Costa.

The past few years have also seen a number of internationally acclaimed jazz artists perform in India. The Jazzmatazz festival held in Mumbai last month saw artists like Steve Turre, Cedar Walton and Louis Hayes perform to a packed auditorium. "International legends like Victor Huton and Frank Ambally who may not have looked at India a decade ago, are now ken to perform here. The market for jazz in the US and Europe has saturated, while it's slowly picking up here," D'Costa adds.

What's more, even multinational companies have begun to hold jazz workshops for their high flying employees, in a bid to equip them with Western know-how. A jazz expert, who is bound by a non-disclosure agreement by the MNCs he conducts workshops for, said top executives in suits, carrying leather briefcases and Sheaffer pens are regulars at such sessions.

"MNCs ask us to conduct these workshops so that their executives are able to strike a casual conversation with international business associates, who often meet for dinner at upscale jazz clubs," the expert says.
As Anthony Gomes of Furtados, one of India's leading musical instrument retailer puts it, it has become "fashionable" to learn jazz. "Musicians and artists want to learn jazz, as it is slowly becoming fashionable, but to know how to play it, you need a certain level of skill, training and accomplishment," he says.

The long road ahead
The new bunch of musicians who are merging jazz with other genres seem to have a lot of takers and the fresh sound has already pulled in a dedicated audience. "Properties like Jazzmataz at NCPA and the Mahindra Blues Festival held earlier this year, help promote jazz and blues, which in turn is doing a lot of good for Jazz musicians," says James. According to Sharma, the number of jazz-influenced bands and solo artists playing at indie music festivals has gone up by about 30 per cent.

Taking the example of his own band, Sadri points out, "We are doing extremely well. We are growing musically and so are our fans. Even when we perform in cities like Jaipur, the audiences know us and sing along. Having said that, the number of venues need to increase, and bands need to take responsibility to help expand the scene by organising concerts and performances."

Sunil Sampat traces the history of jazz in India
Jazz came to India in the 1930s. Back then, it was popular dance music. Places like the Taj hotel ballroom and nightclubs mainly in Mumbai and Kolkata, would see local bands and musicians playing the kind of jazz you could hear on records or on radio.

The Taj also got American musicians to play for them. Musicians would visit India by sea and stay on for three months at a stretch. They would hire local musicians as accompanying musicians, and that's how locals learnt jazz from the original source.

From 1932 to 1970, the jazz movement as a popular music form, in India and the rest of the world, was running parallelly. In India, however, artists would mostly do covers.  Jazz remained a popular music genre till the Beatles came along. They changed things and rock bands took popular music away from jazz.

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