music and politics

Jazzy experiments with truth: An American pianist’s impressions of Gandhi

An American musician recounts the Mumbai stories and influences behind his latest album.

I remember my visits to Mumbai by what book I was reading at the time. During the first trip in 2004, it was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and it was his words that were in my head as I walked on the Haji Ali causeway. Another trip featured every street kid trying to sell me White Tiger. For a while, I bought any copy offered and had a bookshelf full of various bootleg versions. In 2013, it was all about the Mahatma.

I loved visiting the bookstores and stalls of Fort and talking with the old men wearing sweater vests who would write up intricate invoices for every purchase. One day, a tent appeared on Horniman Circle courtesy of the Gandhi Museum. Excited by the variety and the low prices, I bought a bunch of books. I still have Truth Is God (Rs 15), Village Swaraj (Rs 35) and All Men Are Brothers (Rs 40). My favorite is Village Swaraj, which deals with animal husbandry, diet and sanitation. It reminds me of the Book of Leviticus from the Bible.

I also bought Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

Last year, I made a jazz album using Indian melodic materials while leaving out Indian instrumentation and rhythms. The temporary title was The Raga & The Abstract Truth but I wasn’t totally happy with it. It seemed too cute. One day, my wife accused me of lying while telling a story and I replied, “I’m not lying, I’m experimenting with truth.” I had my title. In the United States, everyone thinks I’m referring to President Trump.

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I wanted a different way of representing the tamboura drone and decided that bari and tenor sax would do the trick. There is an incredible Charles Mingus quintet of the early 1970s with the same instrumentation as my band which never recorded but they can be heard on this live performance. The low horn combination gives a really baddass sound.

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Lisa Parrott, the marvellous bari sax player in my band is quite influenced by Ornette Coleman. His method of melodic invention called “harmolodics” has a certain affinity to the improvisations of Kishori Amonkar, who could also take one small phrase and in it find infinite variations.

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My other major Indian inspiration is my Mumbai teacher, Ustad Raja Miyan. With his harsh and raspy voice, he invokes ancient deities and shamanistic rituals. He embodies the tradition that is worth keeping.

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The last influence on this album is Beyonce. I enjoyed her videos for Lemonade and decided to make micro-videos for all of the songs.

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The tunes on Experiments With Truth are metaphysical, comical or both. By the time we recorded, it was three years since I had been in Mumbai. The album is, among other things, my evocation of fading memories of Mumbai, with its chaos, action and occasional charms.

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