The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Melody to communicate & entertain

A spacious living room of a flat in one of the city’s very first large, multistoreyed residential complexes. In one corner, a jet black, reverentially well-maintained grand piano. A few feet away, a functional drum kit and an amp-speaker combo for an electric bass. It is sometime in 1989 and rehearsals are in progress for a jazz concert to be held in the Lincoln Room of the American Center, by Madhav Chari on piano, Lew Hilt on bass and myself on drums.

We are rehearsing pieces composed by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Duke Ellington and others. With my limited experience of this genre, I am just trying to hold it down and provide a reasonably authentic, simple foundation but I notice that there is a sparkling chemistry cooking between the other two.

I also know that I am in the presence of a pianist of prodigious talent and immense depth with genuine feel and commitment, who is only at the start of a long and illustrious journey.

In 1991 we do a few more concerts in larger auditoriums. Madhav, who was already studying in the US when we played together in 1989, getting more exposed to the music he loves, performing solo and in ensembles for campus audiences, very naturally moves on, returns to the country of jazz, writes a lot of his own material, incorporates Indian influences, records several CDs, does a regular gig in New York City and plays and interacts with legends like drummers Max Roach, Ed Phigpen and guru of Latin percussion Bobby Sanabria. He also plays with saxophonists such as David Murray and Chico Freeman, and studies and interacts with greats like Henry Threadgill and Wynton Marsalis, whom he considers mentors.

In the last couple of weeks, there has been a flurry of activity for Madhav in the city of his birth. On July 12 he conducted a workshop at the Calcutta School of Music where the maturity of his development as an artiste was in evidence, as was the clarity of his own musical philosophy. On July 14 he did a solo concert, “Dancing with The Duke”, at the same venue, which I sadly missed, and on Saturday August 5 he performed with Karl Peters, one of the country’s leading bassists, and drummer Adrian D’ Souza, who has also played in New York, Mecca of jazz musicians. The venue of the concert was Someplace Else (SPE), at The Park.

Even by the standards of SPE, the crowd was humungous, with a spill-over into the lobby equalled only on two or three previous occasions. I had to employ my boyhood experiences of trams and buses in Calcutta to get right up front. How they managed to get even a baby grand piano on and off that stage I’ll never know, and space logistics did necessitate that Madhav had his back to the audience, but everyone adjusted, as they usually do.

The trio started with Coltrane’s Cousin Mary, moved on to Days of wine and roses by Henry Mansini and by the time they got to the end of Bronis lau Capper’s “invitation”, things had settled down, the musicians had got as comfortable as was possible with the aural environment, and things really started to swing. There was an informal pub atmosphere, with the musicians chatting with each other about how to approach a particular piece before they started, or Madhav crying out, “Karl, take a solo!” in the middle of a piece or at the beginning of a movement, saying “A flat!”, or “Just keep on walking!”

There was a jazz-waltz rendition of John Lennon’s Yesterday, where the actual melody was played much after the piece had started — the first part was all improvisation on the chord changes — but the musicians read each other well, and the piece was cohesive throughout, melodic, and the waltz time steady and palpable.

Then they played the time-tested jazz standard Autumn leaves which every jazz musician in history has probably played, but they were not phased by this. It was excitingly done, with seamless changes in tempo from swing to Latin to half time and back without batting an eyelid. Many decisions were on the spot, as were the dynamics where they quietened down or built it up just by feeling where Madhav was going. There was also a passage where bass pulled out and only piano and drums went on a roller-coaster ride. The familiarity with the tune allowed for a lot of flamboyance.

The search was an original tune composed by Madhav. Here again, there was an Afro-Latin feel to start with, with smooth transitions in and out of swing. A melodic composition, even hearing it the first time, you would almost hum the tune. Even the improvised movements were melodic and this is a hallmark of his playing. He doesn’t want to lose his audience or the audience to lose him. Rhythm and melody is where the emphasis must lie. After all, it’s all about communication and entertainment.

The evening’s last piece (before the encore) was Love supreme, composed in four movements. This was the only one which had a slightly funk feel to it, with the drums coming through with a fast triplet ride on the cymbal and rim shots on all four beats of the bar. It featured a fine bass solo from Karl on his five-string electric bass and a drum solo by Adrian exclusively using mallets. The movements included some more work with interchanging swing and Latin rhythms, and had a slow, ballad-like passage as well.

The trio does not play regularly together, but this hardly showed. Their collective experience and awareness on stage kept things cohesive enough. It was refreshing to hear some authentic, creative swing and Latin drumming (the encore was a bossanova), which we haven’t heard since the days of Peter Plant and Johnny Edmonds.

Madhav has stayed faithful to his credo as a musician, and it has grown and become enriched with time. He likes to describe it as “an extension of the tradition of bebop — a 21st century reformulation — adding on and innovating all the time. Carrying our understanding of people like Charlie Parker and bringing our understanding of modernity into the music in our day to day lives.”

Based in Chennai now, he has nonetheless done Calcutta proud. Judging by the response, the city is aware of it.

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