In India, the saxophone has had a similar ambivalent relationship with the music intelligentsia. It remains an important part of the brass marching bands that successfully compete for wedding gigs with the primary native reed instruments—the shehnai in the north and the nagaswaram in the south. But the shehnai and nagaswaram were traditionally looked down upon as background instruments, not designed for serious listening, and the saxophone was considered to be a foreign interloper even in this humble territory.
The man who almost single-handedly made the Indian saxophone respectable was Kadri Gopalnath. The son of a nagaswaram player, he became captivated by the saxophone when he heard it in the Mysore palace band, and then spent 20 years studying with vocalist T.V. Gopalakrishnan and violinist Gopalakrishna Iyer until he developed an authentically Karnatik saxophone technique.
His performances on the soundtrack for the Tamil movie Duet gave him recognition in popular as well as classical circles, and in 2004 he was awarded the Padmashri by the Indian government. Today, thanks to Gopalnath, the saxophone is on its way to becoming as legitimately Indian as … well, the violin.
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Gopalnath’s premier student is Prasant Radhakrishnan, who was born in Phoenix, Ariz., but grew up in a family that spoke both Tamil and Telugu. He learned Karnatik music on saxophone in the traditional guru-shishya relationship with Gopalnath in India, where he released two widely acclaimed albums of Karnatik compositions. These also featured violin and the traditional percussion accompaniment of mridangam, ghatam, and morsing. But Radhakrishnan also has a bachelor’s degree in jazz performance (and international relations) from the University of Southern California. His training in both music traditions enabled him to see that they shared an essential essence, and so he set out to establish some “international relations” with some other gifted Asian-American jazz musicians. The result is VidyA (the capital “A” is not a misprint), a combo that reunites the Karnatik saxophone with its jazz roots, and produces a compelling new musical synthesis.
Texas-born Gautam Tejas, who studied Karnatik violin in Tamil Nadu, completes the melodic duo format which is the heart of Radakrishnan’s and Gopalnath’s Karnatik performances. This duo is supported by the jazz rhythm section of bassist David Ewell and jazz traps player Sameer Gupta. Ewell and Gupta are the driving force behind several well-known jazz groups, including the Supplicants and Marc Cary’s Focus trio. But Gupta is also an accomplished tabla player, and uses his knowledge of Hindustani cross-rhythms to create astonishingly original percussive textures on his jazz trap set.
Hindustani and Karnatik musicians often use different words for the same concept (a Hindustani tihai is a Karnatik korvais) or even the same word for different concepts (the Hindustani rhythmic cycle rupak has seven beats, but Karnatik rupak has six beats). Consequently, VidyA’s original music often emerges spontaneously from both Indian and jazz roots with a minimum of technical conversation. “When I work on a composition. I sometimes write it out in Indian sargam, and sometimes in Western staff notation,” says Radhakrishnan, “but I don’t bring the written notation to rehearsals. I make a few explanations, play my parts, and then we all play together and the music evolves from that.”
Because Indian music and jazz have different ranges of expressive possibilities, this evolutionary process creates a remarkable fresh approach to improvisation. Jazz players usually prefer complex chord progressions that require rapid modulation between different scales. Indian musicians use no chords, only a drone, and stay in a single scale for an entire piece. This focus on a single scale and chord, however, makes it possible to use rhythmic variations which would run roughshod over a complex jazz chord progression.
The musicians of Vidya use their knowledge of Indian rhythms and scales to create both Hindustani and Karnatik variations on jazz instruments. The melodic solos often use the Karnatik formula of starting with sarvalaghu (double time outlining of the raga in a straight rhythm) and then progressing into kanakku (Tamil for “calculation,” which means to introduce more and more complex cross rhythms). They also frequently use Karnatik talas of five or seven beats, and Karnatik ragas which require the use of specific recognizable motifs. But when these patterns are played on saxophone, violin, string bass, and jazz drums, there is a build-up of emotional energy and intellectual complexity which seems to recreate the energy that was present at the birth of bebop in 1940s New York. In fact, if Charlie Parker or Dizzie Gillespie had heard VidyA at that time, I think it would have never have occurred to them that VidyA’s music was Indian. They would simply have wondered where these cats had found a sound that was so mercilessly free of the standard melodic and rhythmic clichés.
Vidya’s latest showcase is as artists-in-residence at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco, where they are planning a series of collaborations with dancers, poets, and filmmakers.
“VidyA’s sound is not exotic, but quite the opposite,” says Tod Brown, director of Red Poppy. “It is a local development—present tense, present location, new culture in the making. In the Art House residency, they will continue this activity of reinterpreting, and artistically translating, the cultural developments in the world around us. Like a blade, they cut through outdated cultural myths to expose a new identity that lies at the intersection of the complex world we all live.”
Recording and concert information on VidyA and can be found atwww.vidyamusic.com
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.