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Indo-Jazz 101

by Jason Gubbels

Indo-Jazz 101

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Jazz and Indian classical music emerged from opposite sides of the globe, claim contradictory harmonic approaches and utilize different instruments -- hardly the basis for promising dialogue. Still, both forms depend heavily upon improvisation and rhythm, and those twin traits have helped ensure a lively discussion between adventurous musicians hailing from points east and west. Sitarist Ravi Shankar's role in sparking such encounters would be hard to overstate -- not only as the premier ambassador of Indian music to the West but as an Indo-Jazz pioneer, an experiment he helped launch via his 1962 meeting with Bud Shank and Gary Peacock, "Fire Night" (his jazz legacy continues today thanks to daughter Norah Jones).

Other Indian musicians would make their mark finding common ground between two worlds (Kadri Gopalnath dedicated much of his life transposing South India's Carnatic music to alto saxophone), but Western jazz performers seemed most intrigued by Indo-Jazz's possibilities. John Coltrane (son Ravi was named in tribute to Shankar) based his composition "India" on a field recording of Vedic chants. Yusef Lateef explored Indian modes and instruments, while Joe Harriott and Indian composer John Mayer convened a 1960s group they called Indo-Jazz Fusions.

Plenty of these experiments resulted from individual performers finding solace in Indian religion, like electric guitarist John McLaughlin finding common cause with Carlos Santana while both were enamored with meditation master Sri Chinmoy. But other musicians simply liked Indian rhythms: Miles Davis added tabla and sitar to 1969's swirling "Great Expectations" (the favor was later returned by a host of Indian performers on 2008's ensemble album Miles from India), while Bill Laswell has continually laced his own electric grooves with Indian percussion and vocals. Recent years have found both Indian and Indian American performers crafting intriguing hybrids, from the funky Bollywood horns of Red Baraat to MacArthur Genius Grant winner Vijay Iyer's Tirtha project, which locates the pianist alongside tablas and guitar in seamless Indo-Jazz mode. Check out our playlist for 50 years' worth of delightful East-West fusion.

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