A few years ago, when you first heard Asha Bhosle and jazz in the same sentence, there was a split second before you accepted the essential truth of this living legend—that she is an ever-evolving performer. From playback Hindi Bollywood, she went on to other languages, then on to Western mainstream/ alternative (having collaborated with Boy George to Michael Stipe of R.E.M.), after all. Jazz was just another territory. Now, try this sentence: Bhosle is set to perform live at the 29th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival. Yes, live. At the jazz festival. Right in the Bay Area!
“This’ll be my fist time at the festival,” Bhosle says, though she’s not new to the Bay. In fact, San Francisco inspires fond memories for Bhosle. “My very first concert tour of U.S.A. was in 1977 when I performed with Rahul Dev Burman and his orchestra. It was at the Masonic Theatre on Nob Hill. Sarod maestro, the late Ali Akbar Khan attended the concert.
“I remember Rahul was very nervous performing in front of him because he was his guru. I particularly enjoyed performing in San Francisco and post concert spent a few days relaxing in the city.”
Bhosle’s latest collaboration, “Naina Lagai Ke,” with Shujaat Khan, son of sitar legend Vilayat Khan, qualifies on some levels as jazz: One, it was created in an improvisational creative combustion session between the two artists. Two, it does not adhere to any specific style—it is not classical, has nuances borrowed from ghazal, thumri, folk, and light classical styles.
Bhosle comments, “I would urge (Khan) to start, and in turn, he would provide me an opening, and so on. That is how quite literally, the recording took place. The album’s music sounds nostalgic, but is new at the same time. These endeavors need to happen more often, they make inspired music.”
Khan says, “While an artist of Ashaji’s caliber can sing within the lyrical demands of the score, it is when she’s given the space and freedom that you can hear the soul call. I’m a sitarist and I sing, and she sings, and together we converse.”
It can be said that Bhosle’s conversations with jazz began when the San Francisco band Kronos Quartet decided to use Burman’s numbers as base for their album, “You’ve Stolen My Heart (Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Mujhko). Bhosle sang those songs, which incidentally got nominated for a Grammy in 2005, under the Best Contemporary World Music category. “Naina Lagai Ke,” on the other hand, claims to be neither evolutionary nor revolutionary; it promises instead a coming together of superlative styles and high-quality musings in music.
The jazz event that Bhosle will be part of is an icon, one of the largest performing arts events in the San Francisco Bay Area, with more than 1 million concertgoers and over 10,000 musicians in 28 years. The first festival in 1983 featured Brazilian, Afro-Cuban music. The first Indian artists, including Ali Akbar Khan, performed in 1986. Since then, the festival has had artists from Chile, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Japan, New Zealand, Benin, Cape Verde, Senegal, Mali, Israel, and Sweden, among others.
Randall Kline, founder and executive artistic director of t SFJAZZ, says, “The local scene has always been strong here. The Ali Akbar Khan school has been a focus for us. Zakir Hussain has participated in many concerts with his own group, Remembering Shakti, with Joe Henderson, Charles Lloyd, and Pharaoh Sanders.” More recently, Grammy-nominee Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa have performed at the festival.
When asked about what makes a memorable song, the queen of musical versatility said, “Lyrics, tune, and performance all contribute to the success of a song. I don’t consider myself as being the most important factor in a song’s success, nor do I consider just the tune or superior lyrics alone to contribute to a successful song.”
Fans from the last several decades will beg to differ—they throng to wherever Bhosle is because they know that it is she who makes a good song great.