Like rap, Indo-jazz music has many fathers.
American jazz artist John Coltrane’s experiments with twin basses to effect the sound of the tanpura in the early ’60s is often cited as the moment when the impregnation began. Others point to Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriot’s collaboration with Indian composer John Mayer beginning in the mid-1960s as the first time the term fusion was used in jazz.
A case could also be made that it was actually Uday Shankar’s adventurous blending of Indian and western dance styles in the 1930s that created the cultural consciousness for an East-West fusion in music.
Whoever eventually gets the credit, there is no doubt that by taking a dip in the musical sangam of Indian classical music and jazz, many musicians from both traditions have tapped into deep streams of creativity.
Within the jazz fraternity, American alto-sax player John Handy’s collaborative work with various Indian classical artists stands out for its beauty and finesse.
Handy, now 83, keeps a low profile. But his career as a music educator, sideman and leader dates back to the late 1940s and includes stints in R&B bands, Count Basie’s big band and an intense few years with the prickly bassist Charlie Mingus.
Handy’s adventurous spirit can be seen in the music of John Handy with Class, his band of the last 23 years which features three female violinists cum vocalists! It is also exemplified in his collaborations with some of India’s finest musicians, which we explore this week.
Ganesha’s Jubilee Dance (with Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain), Karuna Supreme
Handy’s ties with sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan began in 1971 at the Ali Akbar College of Music in California, which Khan had established just a few years previously.
The two became close and Handy considered Khan a rare genius. “His alaps, they could make you cry!” he once told a journalist. The two played together for several years before making 1975’s stellar record Karuna Supreme.
The album, which also included tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, then the director of percussion at Khan’s College, is universally regarded as one the best examples of East-West fusion ever made.Hussain, whose first jazz recording this was, opens the piece with flourish and is quickly joined by Khan plucking a folk-like melody line. Handy enters seamlessly before the two embark on a set of alternating solos that leave the heart pumping with joy. Those who haven’t heard this album should definitely seek it out. It shimmers with lustre like a precious deep sea pearl.
Raag Hinglaj (with Maharaj Brothers)
Handy’s fluid runs on this rare raag (named after sarod maestro Vikash Maharaj’s mother), are effortless, showing just how comfortable he is in an Indian music setting. His affinity with the rhythm and cadences of Hindustani music are almost native and as his friends’ expressions attest, a delight to behold.
The Maharaj family of sarod and tabla players from Benaras is one of India’s most illustrious musician families, with 15 generations of artists. In this clip, Prakash Maharaj’s tabla work is breathtaking. He creates a stunning atmosphere within which Handy and Vikash Maharaj are able converse like long-lost brothers.
"Kali Dance" (with L Subramaniam and Ali Akbar Khan)
Such was the success of the Karuna Supreme album and the collaborators' live shows in Europe and North America that Khan and Handy decided to combine their talents a one more time.
On the album Rainbow (1980), they are joined by L Subramaniam on the violin, while Shyam Kane sits in for Hussain, who was otherwise occupied. The simpatico relationship between the players is still evident, though the introduction of a Carnatic element changes the sound and feel of the album, which never quite reached the sublime heights of Karuna Supreme.
"Mishrank" (with Ravi Shankar), from Jazzmine
Unveiled at Mumbai’s Jazz Yatra festival in 1980, Ravi Shankar’s ambitious and largely overlooked piece Jazzmine included a mini orchestra of Indian classical and Western jazz players, including Handy. The experience was frustrating on many levels.
Shankar was unhappy with the sound quality of the recording and Handy found Shankar a more challenging personality to deal with than Khan. This track is the final movement of the five-suit compilation Jazzmine.
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