Ravi Shankar was a relative unknown in the United States when he first toured the nation as a soloist in 1956. Yet there was one class of listener that would readily turn up at his concerts: the jazz lover.
Shankar met some of the most legendary jazz musicians, such as John Coltrane, on his US tours, at a particularly productive time for the genre. His collaborations with them created a space where musical ideas could be shared and musical energies harnessed.
Of course, Shankar’s influence was not limited to jazz, and his greatest impact has probably been the fertile ground he cultivated for the encounter between the classical traditions of the Western world and South Asia. There were two particularly relevant figures in this musical dialogue, Yehudi Menuhin and Philip Glass, although Shankar did obviously collaborate with other prestigious musicians and conductors, among them Zubin Mehta, the acclaimed Bombay-born conductor.
Shankar’s relationship with jazz was complex and perhaps somewhat superficial. He never pretended to be a jazz musician, and the only experiment in which he claimed to draw inspiration from jazz – Jazz Mine, which he said could be pronounced “jasmin” – is certainly not the most outstanding work in the realm of jazz fusion known as “raga jazz”. In my humble opinion, the album has little jazz.
However, to talk about jazz is to talk about a slippery subject, and I will not focus this article on discrediting Shankar’s less outstanding work, but rather on highlighting those little musical inputs and exchanges that may be of interest to a jazz-loving listener, because of their originality and freshness, and because they are the result of an outstanding musician whose work as a sitarist and composer is well worth getting to know and learning to appreciate. We will also, in the course of this article, cite some cases that illustrate the clear and direct influence his music had on many jazz musicians.
Early solo career in US and Europe: 1956-1965
Ravi Shankar returned to the United States in 1956. Eighteen years had passed since his last visit to the country as a member of his brother Uday’s dance company. He was now 36 years old and had established himself as a leading light in India both in the field of classical music – a genre especially fertile in that first decade after independence – and film music for cinema productions emerging from Bombay and Calcutta.
He had already composed one of his most celebrated cinematic works – the soundtrack for filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s trilogy The World of Apu – and had been the music director of All India Radio at a time when the medium was just beginning to become popular in India. He had other achievements to his credit, but the wider world was yet to recognise them and his creativity.
In his travels around the US as a teenager, Shankar had witnessed the effervescence of early jazz with its roots in New York. But the call he felt to fully commit to music came from his native land. His guru Allauddin Khan taught him the system of Indian classical music according to a pedagogic tradition that integrated renunciation and unreserved surrender, and involved a life of asceticism along with long days of exercises and musical lessons based on oral transmission and learning by ear.
After this training Shankar began his journey in India as a sitarist, composer and musical director of orchestras of indigenous instrumentation. He revitalised his instrument, created new ragas and composed for Indian cinema before going on to tour internationally and gradually becoming a figure of global interest.
On his first tour of the US in 1956, when he was still an unknown, the first audiences to welcome him were jazz listeners. Both the crème de la crème of the genre as well as amateurs flocked to his concerts and recitals in New York and other US metropolises.
As the word spread, the World Pacific label (originally called Pacific Jazz) became interested in his music, partly because of the intervention of George Avakian, the jazz producer who had signed Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. George Avakian also got Shankar his first studio date in the US, to record for none other than Columbia at the famous 30th Street studio.
On this album, titled The Sound of India, was a recording geared towards the Western listener unfamiliar with Indian classical music. It was an introduction that explained the basic elements of the precise melodic form that is the raga, the musical structure of this musical genre. Curiously, Shankar closed the recording with a warning to the listener: do not expect elements in common with jazz beyond improvisation.
While on his first tour of the US, Shankar visited the West Coast, where his second US album was produced.
“[Sculptor] Richard Bock threw a welcome party at his West Hollywood home to introduce Ravi to the Los Angeles music scene, and then arranged a recording session in the Forum Theater on West Pico Boulevard. This was a disused cinema that Bock hired regularly; he had taped albums there by Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Hoagy Carmichael. This session produced Ravi’s second US album, India’s Master Musician. Its five tracks again replicate in condensed form the range covered by one of his live concerts.”— Craske, Oliver. Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar (p.187). Faber & Faber.
Shankar recorded in the late 1950s and early 1960s for the World Pacific label, creating – in my opinion – some of the best records of his career. Many of these recordings were adaptations of the raga for Western audiences. The adaptation was not a simplification or fusion with other genres, but a shortening of the three movements of the musical structure: Alap, Jor and Jhala (another possible transcription is Alaap, Jodh, Jhala). If in traditional Indian concerts, the Alap could last from an hour to an hour and a half, in Shankar’s American recordings it lasts about 6 minutes, thus making this first exploratory part without a defined rhythmic structure more digestible.
What also made the World Pacific recordings interesting was that they combined a sample of Indian classical music, expressed basically in raga form, and South Asian folk music, including songs such as Songs from the Hills or improvisations of the Pather Panchali theme song, based on the Bengali folk tradition.
Some of the recording sessions included a good number of jazz musicians. On the album Portrait of Genius, for instance, the flute was played by Paul Horn, a New York jazz musician. For his album Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali, Shankar “assembled a group of four fine jazz musicians: Bud Shank on flute, Dennis Budimir on guitar, Gary Peacock on upright bass and Louis Hayes on drums. Harihar Rao, who had just taken up a Fulbright scholarship at UCLA, came too, bringing a dholak folk drum”.
On Improvisations... is the jazziest track from this prolific period of the artist’s career – Fire Night. Although Shankar did not play the sitar on it, he was in charge of the direction of the recording. Shankar “arranged and conducted the track, which owes its title to a major brush fire that had burned down hundreds of nearby homes a week earlier. This experimental piece opens with [Kanai] Dutta playing the damaru, an hourglass drum associated with Shiva as god of destruction. The flute then introduces the folk-like main melody in the raga Dhani, the pentatonic scale of which has a kinship with the blues”.
The eclectic and vibrant track to me evokes the originality of Paul Desmond’s Take Five, included on Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album. Although there is no direct correlation between the two pieces, the comparison is not entirely incidental, as Take Five found inspiration in the rhythmic patterns of Indian music, using the 5/4 time signature.
In his World Pacific phase, Shankar produced five diverse albums, with material covering the spectrum, from anthology to hybrid cross-genre experimentation. These five discs were:
1. India’s Master Musician, 1959
2. Improvisations and Theme from Pather Panchali, 1962
3. Portrait of Genius, 1964
4. Sound of the Sitar, 1965
5. In San Francisco, 1967
Influence on jazz musicians: Coltrane family
“Other jazz musicians were drawn to the sense of peace that suffuses a raga, particularly in the opening alap section. John Coltrane, hitherto a self-destructive heroin addict but undergoing a life-changing detox and spiritual epiphany at the very time Ravi was in New York, was soon wondering how to attain that serenity. He was inspired to pursue it through studying Indian music, and in time sought out Ravi.”— Craske, Oliver. Indian Sun: The Life and Music of Ravi Shankar
Both John Coltrane and his wife Alice Coltrane found inspiration in the music of Shankar. But in the case of Alice, it was more manifest. After her years with John and as the spiritual leader of the Sai Anantam Ashram she founded in 1983 in California, she used Vedic chants and Indian devotional music – one of the genres cultivated by Shankar – and fused them with the gospel tradition of Detroit, her hometown. Even before that, Alice used the tanpura as the basic drone in the acclaimed classic Journey to Satchidananda, recorded with Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, giving a good example of how free jazz borrowed elements from other musical traditions, including the Indian tradition.
Alice and John Coltrane’s admiration for Shankar is more evident from the fact that they named their second son, now one of the most outstanding saxophonists on the New York scene, after him: Ravi Coltrane. Still, in the end, despite the influence of Shankar, John and Alice’s music maintained a distinct identity without fully entering the realm of raga jazz.
John McLaughlin, an established jazz guitarist, has been “one of the pioneers in the integration of ethnic musical styles into jazz, as attested by his facility with flamenco (...), Indian music (...) and the classical and acoustic guitar tradition,” writes Ted Gioia in his History of Jazz.
McLaughlin “became an informal student of Ravi, who took him under his wing, as he often did with bright talents. From about 1975 onwards Ravi regularly invited McLaughlin over when he was in New York, and one day decided to teach him south Indian music theory,” says Oliver Craske in his biography of Shankar.
A year later, the first work of the instrumental jazz fusion ensemble Shakti was released. Shakti was McLaughlin’s guitar-led instrumental ensemble that integrated musicians from the South Indian tradition, Carnatic music, and the legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain, more familiar with the North Indian tradition, Hindustani. Although Shakti disbanded a few years after its creation, the collaboration between McLaughlin and Hussain has continued, becoming one of the emblematic performances of some editions of the universal concert on April 30 sponsored by UNESCO.
Irene Schweizer, Mani Neumeier, Joachim-Ernst Berendt
In 1967, the year the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, among their most celebrated albums and one in which the Indian influence is most evident, one of the most outstanding works of raga jazz was recorded in Germany. Jazz Meets India is classified as free jazz and modal jazz along with raga jazz, and it has a bit of all three concepts. It is an album in which the common thread is the melodic line delineated by the sitar and reflected in the western instrumentation, which follows the steps marked by the sitar.
In my opinion, Jazz Meets India is a work of such delicacy and exquisiteness that makes it timeless. Even today, it can be a valuable reference for any musician who wants to continue experimenting with modal jazz.
The album was produced by the German jazz producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt after the percussionist Mani Neumeier showed interest in the project. It was recorded after the pieces were performed live at the Donaueschinger Musiktagen festival in southern Germany, and, subsequently, played at the Berlin Jazz Festival.
It was no coincidence that the initiative to record the three pieces with a double Indian and Western ensemble, two trios named after the leading instrumentalist – Dewan Motihar Trio and Irene Schweizer Trio – was undertaken in Germany. Germany had long been fascinated by Indian culture. It was, indeed, one of the European countries where Shankar had been received with the greatest interest and appreciation in the 1950s and 1960s, decades after his brother Uday’s dance company had received a similar welcome in the Weimar Republic.
Although Shankar was not involved in Jazz Meets India, it could be said that his work as an ambassador or evangelist had created the conditions for such a recording to emerge in Europe. In my opinion, sitarist Dewan Motihar shone in the encounter – an encounter on equal terms for musicians of different traditions – just as Shankar shone throughout his career in other hybrid fields in the genres of classical and minimalist music. Still, the work of the piano, trumpet and drums was remarkably interesting, following the path traced by the raga delineated by the sitar and tabla, achieving a balanced and profound result.
The impact of Shankar’s live and studio work is not limited to the aforementioned musicians – it goes far beyond them. But what these examples show us is how difficult and ill-advised it can be to put boundaries on music.
This article is primarily based on the biography of Ravi Shankar, written by Oliver Craske and published by Faber & Faber, and quotes the book several times. The original text was published on www.caravanjazz.es and has been translated from Spanish.
Special thanks to Oliver Craske for his interest in this project and for the photographs.