(This is a plug, in the "previews are more useful than reviews" spirit: skip to the end if long write-ups bore you.)
When people think of music and Chennai (or Madras, to use its older name), they think of Carnatic music -- the southern branch of Indian classical music. People from around the country (and expatriates from around the world) make a trip here in December, the "music season", when there are 20 or 30 concerts happening every day. These days, Hindustani music (north Indian classical music) is also finding a growing audience.
But, on moving here, I found that the city was also home to Madhav Chari, pianist, the finest Indian player I've encountered in quite another form of improvised music: jazz.
I use the words "finest" and "jazz" carefully. There are several musicians in India who claim to play jazz but don't know what it means (cf. T V Gopalakrishnan and his -- ugh -- "carnatic jazz"). There are many who play authentic jazz (eg, Frank Dubier in this city, Rex Rosario in Bangalore) but have not really succeeded in going beyond an imitation of swing-era musicians. They're fun to listen to (especially given the shortage of live jazz here) but I've heard more inspired music on the streets in Paris and in nondescript bars in New York. There are some who have tried to take their jazz beyond Louis Armstrong and give it a contemporary colour (Louis Banks in Mumbai, Amit Heri in Bangalore) but the results, to me, are dubious.
Madhav Chari is different. To begin with, he is a scholar (literally -- he was pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics in Illinois when he decided that music is his true calling) and is well grounded both in the practice of contemporary jazz and in its history, folklore, and roots, in the blues, ragtime, New Orleans creole music, west African rhythms, and, of course, European classical music. His technique has the solidity of a classical pianist, while the music he plays is something the best contemporary jazz musicians in New York will identify with. In a word, he groks jazz.
My first introduction to him was a workshop series that he was conducting a month or two after I moved to Chennai. Subsequently I have heard him perform several times, in public and in private (including twice at my workplace). At his best he is the equal of anyone I've heard in the world; while even his least-inspired music is very listenable and thoroughly professional, never dull or careless.
He once told me that one reason he lives in Chennai is that one gets to know all kinds of interesting people here that one wouldn't in most other cities. To me, he himself is an example.
Unfortunately, apart from a trio CD that he recorded in New York several years ago, I've only ever heard Madhav play solo piano. But that will change this Thursday (the 16th), when he plays at the Museum Theatre with Fabien Marcoz on bass and Mourad Benhammou on drums. He describes them as two of the best young French jazz musicians. Which is nice. I love the sound of a trio: many of my favourite recordings are by piano/bass/drums trios, from Bill Evans to the Ellington/Mingus/Roach "Money Jungle" to today's Brad Mehldau, Uri Caine, Kenny Barron and others. So I'm really looking forward to it. (And it's free, courtesy Alliance Française.) Subsequently they're playing in a few other cities (Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi I believe).
If you're a jazz buff, be there.