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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

New York-based pianist Charu Suri’s debut album Lollipops for Breakfast is a sugary concoction of the whimsical and playful, daring and irreverent, soulful and authentic.

If you were walking down the street with an iPod plugged in your ear, the title composition Lollipops might well evoke images of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, or Life With Father by Clarence Day. It’s a bluesy piece that sounds like a perfect day – the skies are blue, the guy gets the girl, all your effort bears fruit, justice triumphs – you get the idea.         

This lightness, an almost spun-sugar feel that makes you want to whirl around without a care for who’s looking, sprung from one of life’s loveliest spontaneous moments.  

“Erika woke up one morning and asked me for lollipops for breakfast!” says Suri, referring to her six-year-old daughter. That was pretty much all it took for inspiration. Suri got to the piano and began to experiment “on ideas, a phrase, instrumentation, and melodies.”

If the album has the touch of a wandering minstrel, it’s because Suri, a travel writer for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Architectural Digest, has imbued some of the culture and ethos of more than 40 countries. Ballad was written after a trip to the South of France, Suri says, where she was blown away by the live performances of Imany, Norah Jones, and George Benson at Gerard Bertrand’s annual jazz festival. When she tells you that the vineyards of Languedoc Roussillon led to an outpouring of notes for Ballad, you listen closely and almost begin to paint a visual in front of you of an intimate dinner for two, some Sauvignon blanc, and this piece softly playing in the background to the conversation.

Suri’s group is the perfect compliment. In Make It Snappy! Jay O’Brien on the drums paired with J. Brunka’s bass lends the piece the quirky levity of, say, music that would pipe perfectly through a movie like The Thomas Crown Affair.  

Suri’s introductory composition Raga Tala, essentially in the minor key, is redolent of the Bowli raga, a sublime morning melody in the Carnatic and Hindustani classical music traditions. The constant drone in the piano left hand and bass that stands in for the shruti box in Carnatic music are distinctly Indian influences. Notes emerge from silence in Brahma Vishnu Shiva, with Crispian Fordham’s flute reminiscent of Vishnu-Krishna’s all-sustaining music.

Suri grew up in Chennai, learning the veena at the age of eight from her grandmother. A student of Church Park Convent, she began taking piano lessons at age five, attending voice sessions with her classmates once a week, conducted by the legendary Indian musician and composer Handel Manuel.  All this lit a spark to an already simmering love, with Suri learning to notate and sight read at a very early age, and writing a piece for a full symphony orchestra with soprano at the age of 19.

Later, at Princeton University, Suri graduated with a B.A. in classics, with a minor in music performance. She went on to earn an M.A. from the Manhattan School of Music.

“What matters to me is the heart and soul of the piece. The reason for its existence. Without that basic feeling, no amount of musical notation and scribbling makes sense,” Suri points out.

Lollipops for Breakfast was released on Spotify this year, and is also available on iTunes. Suri and her group will tour Chicago, San Antonio and Denver in the next couple of months. She is now composing two more albums – The Book of Ragas and New American Songbook – which will be released this year at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.

Suri and her group are scheduled to perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall at 7:30 pm on Friday, Dec. 20.

Sujata Srinivasan is a Connecticut-based journalist. Her work can be found on Twitter: @SujataSrini