Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"Parisian Throroughfares" in Chennai

(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 Fran├žaise.) Subsequently they're playing in a few other cities (Bangalore, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi I believe).

If you're a jazz buff, be there.


wildflower seed said...

Hey Rahul
Over here from TR's, and we know each other besides, too. :)

I've known about Madhav since way back when, and even heard some of his music, but never seen him live. Funny story about him - well, not directly about him. He grew up in Kolkata, in a building complex where a close friend of mine lived. Apparently, Madhav's father was a hardcore jazz buff, so much so that he would round up all the 6-12 year olds in the complex (having perhaps caught them while they had congregated to play outside in the evening), and invite them home for random listening sessions. How cool is that? My friend has fond memories of listening to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman - all the swing-era greats.

While trolling the internet, I once came across this article by Madhav. Enjoy!

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Hey WFS - well I'm not sure who you are but I think I can guess... do you live in Boston?

Madhav's dad is an interesting character. He's now learning the trumpet (at 70) and has ambitions of performing one day. I've heard Madhav is pretty popular in Kolkata. He seems to enjoy playing there.

By the way I'm making my first trip to Kolkata (at least, my first since early childhood) this weekend, and I think I'll have one evening free -- any recommendations on what to check out, esp. in terms of book/music shops? I'll be in the esplanade area.

Tabula Rasa said...

good for you - music wise, kolkata wise, and for hooking up with ws again. nice trio that.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Actually, I was thinking of both of you as people who would drool at hearing Kai Eckhart and George Brooks, who're playing here... but that's on the 16th too, so my priorities are elsewhere.

wildflower seed said...

Droooool. No, really! Summit (I dont know if thats what they are calling the band) was supposed to tour India in 2003, but ended up not going. You are in for some really fantastic music. Those guys can play alright!

Anyway, ya, looks like you placed me right, except I'm now teaching at a liberal arts college in Philadelphia. Just got here this Fall. Really enjoying it so far.

To your Kolkata question, I havent been home in 4 years, and I believe Kolkata has changed a lot in that time, so any advice I give you would probably be outdated. One place which used to have good music last time I visited was Someplace Else, the bar in Park Hotel. Check it out if you can.

Nice blog you have here. :)

Tabula Rasa said...

talk about an embarrassment of choices :-|

Rahul Siddharthan said...

ws - good to know about your move. Have fun.

The Eckhart/Brooks band is called "Global Conversations" or some such thing and also features Kala Ramnath (violin) and a few others.

Thanks for Kolkata tips. Probably I'll just take a walk on streets near the hotel though, and then come back and prepare my talk...

Anonymous said...

Thought you would want to know that Madhav passed away at 3 am this morning. Cremation is at 3 pm at Mylapore.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Thanks Subhorup. Got the message earlier. Terrible tragedy.