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The first albums by saxophonist George Brooks were an expression of a uniquely personal vision. Brooks has a solid training in classic and progressive jazz, which he has supplemented with extensive studies with khayal singer Pran Nath. He responded to these influences by creating a whole new melodic approach. He used Hindustani ragas as raw material for his jazz ensembles, but wrote melodies that modulated those ragas through jazzy chord progressions. This approach intrigued Zakir Hussain, who developed many new percussion techniques when he played on Brooks’s albums. However, Brooks’s relationship with most of the other musicians on those albums was basically the same as that between European classical composers and musicians. They played the parts that were written for them, and were effective vehicles for the new style that Brooks had developed. But when they improvised, they were clearly rooted in jazz, not Indian music, even when they followed the rules of the ragas.
Summit is another sort of beast altogether: a group that Brooks leads, and composes for, but which has a life of its own. Brooks’s previous groups were like finely made watches that he designed and controlled. Summit is like a spirited horse that he rides and urges forward. I have no doubt that, whenever they perform, they create things that Brooks would never have expected, and that they themselves are continually surprised and delighted by what they end up playing. This kind of spontaneity is not unheard of with musicians who work within a single tradition. Musical traditions are created by years of evolution that enable each player to know what to expect from the others, and how to respond in turn. But it is extremely rare in fusion music, and it happens in Summit only because of the unique histories and abilities of each of the players.
Fusion groups have usually been created by collaborations with musicians who have each mastered a different style. Brooks’s three newest collaborators have all played in numerous fusion groups of that sort—and thus became masters of fusion music. All are recognized masters in American jazz and rock, who were sought out by Indian musicians because they were the best. They then went through what drummer Steve Smith called a “trial by fire,” as they discovered that being the best in American music meant you had to reprogram all of your instincts to adapt yourself to Indian music. However, this process gave them mastery of a new kind of music, which made them uniquely capable of performing, and improvising on, Brooks’s compositions.
When Smith was asked to play with tabla player Sandip Burman’s East Meets Jazz, he had already played with Western groups of every sort, from the 1980s megarock band Journey to his progressive jazz combo Vital Information. From there he played rock drums in classical Karnatik music in a duo with Indian electric guitarist Prasanna, and in the World Percussion Trio with Karuna Murthi on the Karnatik tavil and Hakim Ludin on Afghani hand percussion. Smith learned Karnatik rhythms by reciting the kunnakol drum syllables, then adapting them to his drum set. Bassist Kai Eckhardt played in a trio with fusion tabla player Trilok Gurtu and Shakti founder John McLaughlin, and on several other projects with Gurtu. He also worked with Smith in Vital Information and on several projects with Brooks and Hussain.
After they played with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, Smith told Brooks that he would love for them to work together on any project that included Zakir Hussain. They agreed to bring in Eckhardt, who encouraged them to recruit half-Pakistani, half-Chilean guitarist Fareed Haque from Eckhardt’s group Garage Mahal. Haque had grown up with Indian music, and had traveled from that music towards jazz in much the same way that the others had started with jazz and moved towards Indian music. Because his family had lived not only in Pakistan, but in Spain, France, Iran, and Chile, he had also been exposed to many other kinds of music since childhood.
It was rather amazing that such stellar musicians were able to blend their styles so affectively. Brooks described his bandmates as being “virtuous virtuosos, who used their great prowess to really support the music.” Eckhardt and Haque pushed the pitch ranges and harmonic capabilities of their instruments so far beyond their usual limits that it was often impossible to tell bass from guitar. Yet their interaction was highly supportive, both of each other and the rest of the band. Smith also worked carefully to make sure his own virtuosity was equally well adapted to Hussain’s. Smith used only flat and splash cymbals, and played his entire drum kit with either brushes or bundled rods. Thanks to careful miking, and careful listening to each other, Smith and Hussain sound like one superhuman drummer.
Brooks’s saxophone flutters and soars over all of these strings and percussion, sometimes playing in tight rhythmic unisons with the other players, other times taking eloquent solos across the richly textured rhythm section. His compositions do not seem to be as strictly arranged as on his earlier albums, but frankly when the jamming is this “in the pocket” it’s hard to tell when the compositions end and the improvisations begin. The main themes have Brooks’s uniquely raga-inspired structures, and everyone’s playing seems fully in tune with the distinctive mood of each piece. When I asked Eckhardt if he always followed the rules of each raga, he said, “I would never do anything that really broke the rules, such as chromatics.” When I asked Haque the same question, he said, “I only add notes that don’t really break the rules, like chromatics.” I doubt if anyone, even the players themselves, could reduce Summit’s music to a single formula, and that is one of its many strengths.
Teed Rockwell has studied Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan and other great Indian musicians. He is the first person to play Hindustani music on the Touchstyle Fretboard.