It all started with the recorder. That was the beginning of a musical journey for Arun Ghosh that would take him from Western classical, through jazz and urban to Indian folk and classical music. The recent launch of his Album, South Asian Suite, gave Ken Hunt an opportunity to talk to the clarinettist and composer about his musical discoveries – not always made according to the rules.
If it’s the end of September 2013, it’s Soho and it’s the PizzaExpress Jazz Club, then it has to be the launch of A South Asian Suite by Arun Ghosh and his band ‘featuring Zoe Rahman’. Anticipation is running high and the downstairs venue is as packed as health-and-safety-wallahs and the elbows of diners permit. Recorded in May and July 2013, A South Asian Suite is only the clarinettist-composer’s third recorded project since his debut, Northern Namaste fed the wider Indo-jazz consciousness in 2008.
Conceived in Calcutta and born in Britain, as the Ghosh family joke goes, Arun Ghosh – pronounced ‘Aroon’ with a long u – is of mixed Sindi and Bengali bloodlines. After living in Manchester, the family moved to Bolton. Bolton was the town that was pivotal in making Ghosh the musician he grew into. It was where he got serious about music and took up violin, piano and recorder.
An inventive musician-composer, an energetic front man, a musician without an ounce of musical snobbery, let him tell his Bolton tale. “My main instrument, the one that worked for me,” he says, “was the recorder. I played it in school and I caught the music bug from that point. I was really quite obsessed with it. I started making up my own tunes and it all went from there. I suppose because of the similarity of blowing, when I started playing the clarinet at 13 it was just right for me. I’d dabbled in other things but I didn’t find my voice until I started playing the clarinet.”
Which system? “I play a typical Western Boehm system [instrument], pretty standard in terms of learning here,” different in its keywork and fingering from the Albert System.
Between 1998 and 2000 he did a post-graduate course at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. There he was immersed in a western classical repertoire that ranged from Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart to Bartók, Copland and Lutoslawski. While studying there, it dawned that “it was all about jazz” for him. That meant not only listening to jazz but also studying it. He studied jazz harmony and jazz standards with Mike Hall, his saxophone mentor, and took to transcribing US jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane solos – a musician himself famously touched by India’s music and spirituality.
Parallel with these discoveries and encounters, Ghosh dived into what was going on. And that involved “playing raves in back rooms or with DJs. I was very into beats, hip-hop, drum’n’bass, house; that side of my playing was more free. Often it was simpler musically and melodically but more direct.” A skip beat later, he adds, “And probably truer to me.” Volume, projecting and cutting through the din proved formative – and while his music is utterly different now, those lessons remain experiences he can fall back on. “I know I don’t play that clarinet the way other people play the clarinet. That’s not necessarily always something to be fully proud of. It’s a sound and a style that I’ve forged and honed.”
Around 2002 he admits something new entered his vocabulary: “I started playing with tabla players through accompanying a kathak and odissi dancer. Initially I developed a solo piece just playing with this guy Kali Dass. It was very much a free, improvised piece. I’d watch him dancing: I’d play something. He’d listen to what I was playing and respond to that. The response was not necessarily a rhythmic thing, more to do with energy.
“That piece developed into a piece called Fading Contact which was when I started playing with a tabla player from Calcutta, Debashish Mukherjee. That really opened my eyes. It was modal but quite free rhythmically. It was in this six-section suite that lasted twenty minutes or so. It started off with a solo clarinet section improvised where the dancer would come on and respond to what I was doing. Then we went into quite a slow, eight-beat cycle. Then there was a solo section with drone and tabla. Then an exciting end section with jawab sawal [question-and-answer call and response]. Through doing all of that I was suddenly blown away.”
It was the first time, he smiles, he had been that “close to the sound of the tabla”. Playing with Mukherjee granted many new insights and led him to explore new dynamics. “I’m really pleased it was Debashish,” he continues, “because he’s really a master and very much understood where I was at. I was always learning on the job about a tāl or a rāg. Or the whole concept of this improvisation and coming back to the sām [literally, ‘together’ or ‘equal’ and in a tāl – rhythm cycle – the beat where the principal melody and rhythm instruments come together]. Doing that really woke me up to wanting to play more often with a tabla player.”
In 2004 he got involved with the Bedfordshire-based Kadam’s Synergy 04 project, a collaboration between him and the dancers Kali Chandrasegaram and Hanna Mannila. In 2005 he and Chandrasegaram were reunited for Art of Travel, a piece that used the writer Alain de Botton’s 2002 book of the same name as its launch-pad.
When it came to exploring the music of or inspired by the South Asian subcontinent, he finds a parallel with his early forays into jazz. “In the same way that I went deeper into jazz through transcribing and working out harmony, I did the same with Indian music through listening to records. Never through having lessons. I was kind of really conscious not to. Because I wanted to stay true to my clarinet approach, to playing. I didn’t want to go to, say, a classical vocalist and be told to spend ages practising the slides… I felt I didn’t have the time to do that. What I was more interested in doing was listening to stuff and taking from it what I wanted. So, I learned about rules of particular rāgs, by listening to Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Ravi Shankar especially, Ali Akbar Khan and Amjad Ali Khan, and learning about what they were doing with rhythmic cycles, starting to learn about tihais [the threefold repetitions of a phrase that end on a cycle’s first beat, that sām again] and that kind of stuff.”
Northern Namaste delivered the first fruits of him digesting and assimilating these experiences, as far as the wider public was concerned. “When I was doing Northern Namaste it was important to me to stick to the notes of the rāg in a particular tune. ‘Aurora’, for example was in rāg Bhairavi; and ‘Deshkar’ which is obviously Deshkar. I deliberately wrote the tunes in those rāgs. So, when I was soloing I’d stick to the rāg. When I was writing my keyboard voicings, and, in fact, I played piano on that album, I tried to make sure that it stuck to those notes.” He takes a breath. “That was very much my philosophy – that clarity and sticking to the rules. A South Asian Suite is a lot looser than that. Again, that’s because above anything else it’s folk.”
The recorded South Asian Suite and the way it is played live are quite different from the so-called ‘Indo-Jazz chamber work’ that had its world première in the Chai Serai Marquee at the Manchester Mega Mela in July 2010. Over time this “six-movement suite” has undergone several refits. The première, for example, included Jyotsna Srikanth on violin, Kiranjit Dharni on sitar and Corey Mwamba on vibraphone – elements subsequently retired. ‘Slowly it started to develop,’ he recalls. “I realised that actually for me to feel the right way about these tunes, for me to be able to improvise in the way I want, for them to have the right swing, ultimately I needed to bring both the tabla and the dholak in wherever possible. That’s when it really started to blossom as a piece of work.”
Varying instrumental possibilities were explored and road-tested before the suite metamorphosed into the one recorded and unveiled on 29 September 2013. Its feel and instrumentation is jazz with Indian elements, predominantly percussive, notably tabla played on the album by Aref Durvesh and Nilesh Gulhane. Idris Rahman plays tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute, Zoe Rahman piano, Chris Williams alto saxophone, Liran Donin double-bass and electric bass and Pat Illingworth kit drums.
A South Asian Suite has six core pieces titled ‘Gypsies of Rajasthan’, ‘After The Monsoon’, ‘River Song’, ‘Sufi Stomp’, ‘Mountain Song’ and ‘Journey South’. Gradually a set of informal ‘segues’ grew around the main tableaux. (The album artwork ranks the six core pieces typographically: the clue is that the ‘segues’ have a smaller point size.) “It was only in the studio that we had the idea of changing the texture – Chrys [Chijiutomi, his partner] had the bright idea – that you have throughout the album, to have these segues, these connecting pieces that are more intimate, more semi-improvised or totally improvised.
“They wind you down from the piece and they lead you into another piece. One particular one, ‘Ode To The Martyrs’ – which was a free improvised piece – is almost now a tune in itself. I’m thinking about when we go on the road what we’re going to do with those segues. I think the only way to stay true to that is to free-improvise them as we have been doing.”
A South Asian Suite may just turn out to be Arun Ghosh’s Sketches of South Asia. That is a nod to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, another suite of impressions, in its case making no more of a claim to peninsular authenticity than A South Asian Suite does to the subcontinent.