The band was sailing through the concert, when around the halfway mark they erupted into Chick Corea’s Armando’s Rhumba. A jazz fusion classic, Armando’s Rhumba from the album My Spanish Heart is a brilliant mélange of Latin rhythm and bebop pizzazz, an invitation to a secret life where people dance all day long. On the piano, Pradyumna Singh Manot’s hands moved furiously across the keys, as the song hit its many peaks. In the black of the fallboard, the fingers were reflected as a blur, and when they stopped, the audience broke out into hoots and cheers.
Manot was the opening act at the National Centre for Performing Arts’ International Jazz Festival in Mumbai, as part of the band Los Gatos Ay Mamá. And though he was sharing the stage with master conguero Miguelo Valdes, the audience’s response during the hour-long performance made it amply clear who the star performer was.
The rousing cheers at the NCPA were another reminder of how 2018 has been the most successful year in 34-year-old Manot’s career, since the time he realised that playing jazz was his calling. His concerts around the nation, such as Take 5.1, have been popular this year. His music school 12 Keys has found greater visibility. And he was appointed the director of the NCPA Jazz Collective, an institutional initiative that aims to popularise jazz by taking it to the masses.
At the final performance of NCPA’s jazz festival, he was playing with the Clifford Brown Legacy Band, featuring the legendary jazz musician’s grandson, Clifford Brown III, drummer Rayford Griffin and multi-reedist Bennie Maupin, an experience that left him “elated” and “inspired”. “Just playing with them has taught me more about swing in jazz,” said Manot.
Swing is the foundation on which Manot has built his musical career. It’s something he picked up from the late jazz pianist Madhav Chari at a time when he was looking for ways to master nuances. “Today, I can play because of him,” said Manot, visibly passionate about the time he spent under Chari’s tutelage. “He knew what he was talking about and he told me, ‘It’s not about the complicated notes you play or how technically brilliant you are, people only care for how much swing you got.’ I owe my music life to Chari. I became a musician because of my father, but I became a professional because of Chari.”
In playing Latin jazz, Manot talks about sabor, the Spanish word for flavour, or more deeply, an intimate connection to the music and rhythm. That’s why his pieces are so vibrant and soulful. The piano, in fact, often appears an extension of Manot, who found this oneness at the Panama Jazz Festival in January, where he was sent with his band, Four On A Swing, by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations as the country’s only representative.
“I consider myself very lucky,” said Manot. “[It was] an opportunity of a lifetime. I’d do workshops from morning to evening, attend performances after dusk, and then jam spontaneously until 1 am with musicians from all over the world.”
Arjun Sagar Gupta, founder of the jazz club Piano Man, where Manot plays frequently, notes that Panama kicked off a period of growth and development for Manot. “Of course, he’s a technically competent musician, but it’s his musicality and stagecraft that hold audiences in his thrall,” said Gupta. “He’s skilled enough to take the stage with anybody…”
Born and raised in Kolkata, Manot started piano lessons when he was six. He used to watch his father play, and intrigued, began fiddling around. Seeing his son’s curiosity, his father organised home lessons with Anto Menezes, a musician once described as a “genius” by filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Under Menezes’ watchful eye, Manot learned jazz basics and began to develop rhythm and technique. When he was 10, he enrolled in the Calcutta School of Music, where he studied classical music for eight years. Bach, Mozart and Chopin were his inspirations as he worked towards realising his goal of becoming a professional musician.
But then, Manot got bored. “I found classical music too closed, too narrow. There was no story I could tell with it. Jazz and Latin music are about me. They express how much I enjoy living.”
The pianist scraped through college – he graduated in computer science from St Xavier’s despite cutting classes – but his mainstay around that time was teaching music at Birla High School to students from grades six to ten. He performed occasionally with the Saturday Night Blues band at Someplace Else in The Park hotel, and for about five years after college, this was his life. Until 2006, when he met the Curtis Brothers in Kolkata during a jam session. Manot was 23.
“That was my introduction to Latin jazz,” he said. “Someone told Zaccai [Curtis, the pianist half of the duo] that I was a pianist and he suddenly called me over and asked me to play. I told him I didn’t know Latin music, but he insisted I sit beside him and play the montuno tune. And just as suddenly, he walked away while I continued to play.”
Hooked, Manot started listening to Latin recordings, learning from them in ways he didn’t in music school. His understanding was enhanced when he joined Monojit Dutta’s Latin jazz band Los Amigos, and his career took a sharp turn. “The music took my breath away,” he said. “It moves your body without asking for permission and you get utterly dissolved in that rhythm.”
Tempo of life
The stint in Panama allowed Manot to expand his musical boundaries. He formed Los Gatos, an Afro-Caribbean and Latin jazz ensemble with musicians from South America – bassist Sergio Dinarte from El Salvador, conguero Fidel Dely Murillo from Panama, drummer Carlos Varna from Venezuela, and singer Shary Rose from Colombia. His musicality changed, his melodies turned sassier and even self-contained.
And yet there’s melancholy to Manot’s work. His brother, Chaitanya, died when Manot was 28. A grief-stricken Manot stopped playing for six months and for about a year, dove into spiritual reading to navigate the pain. “I became very inward and was let down by many people. It changed my perspective of life and the world completely. But a few others were kind – one friend visited me every day for a year after the tragedy. Sometimes we wouldn’t even talk, but her presence, it made all the difference.” Another friend convinced him to play at a jazz gig, which broke Manot’s self-imposed exile and got him back to the keyboard.
At present, he is focused on developing his music school 12 Keys in Kolkata. It’s a slow process, but at least it’s at home, he says. The idea is to reintroduce the city to jazz through recitals and more festivals. The school is for serious musicians who want to take up music full-time. Classes are held five days a week for seven hours a day and students learn the piano, jazz, Latin music and blues. Manot insists on not offering any certification. “Then you focus on the wrong thing,” he said. “Do we ask exceptional musicians for their certification?”