“I’ve been in New York for thirteen years,” says bassist Harish Raghavan, “and I can probably count the gigs that I’ve led on one hand.” It’s not like Raghavan hasn’t been busy during his time on the New York scene. He’s a top-call sidemen for veteran bandleaders and his peers alike, including vocalist Kurt Elling, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and saxophonist Walter Smith III. But since the end of 2017, Raghavan has started stepping out as a leader with a working quintet, featuring four young Jazz Gallery regulars—saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Micah Thomas, and drummer Jeremy Dutton.
Raghavan and company return to The Jazz Gallery this Saturday, September 15, for two sets, with guitarist Charles Altura filling in for Mr. Ross. We caught up with Raghavan by phone to discuss the impetus for starting this band, where the project has taken him as a composer, and what’s next for the group.
The Jazz Gallery: You’ve been working in this quintet figuration for several months now. What made you want to start a working band?
Harish Raghavan: This had been a long-term idea of mine. I wanted to do a record, because I hadn’t done one yet. I didn’t want to just throw something together. I wanted to get the music out in front of people and feel that energy. I had never really led a band before—I led gigs here and there.
So with that idea for the record, I wanted to go out and book some gigs—for the first six months of the year, I was going to book a gig a month and see if we could get a sound together. I recorded the second gig that we did at ShapeShifter Lab and even by that point, it really felt that we had a sound. I think it’s because I know all of these guys, but also because they’re all friends with each other. Instantly, there was a rapport and we really got through the music quickly.
That was the first six months. Since then, the guys in the band have gotten super busy. In June, I was looking for a time for us to get into the studio, but we couldn’t get everyone together for a session until December. So at that point, I decided to book more gigs, which is how this Gallery show happened.
TJG: In terms of putting out a record, did the motivation come more from having a band or presenting your compositions?
HR: I’m a very goal-oriented person. I need something to push me to do something. The music didn’t come first. I chose the band and booked the gigs, and then I decided that I wanted all new music for the gigs. It didn’t take that long—I don’t know why—but I was able to get a some new music together more quickly than usual. Back in December of last year, I booked our first gig—not with this band exactly, but with a few of the guys—just to see how it felt to lead a group and it felt really good. It almost felt obvious that this is what I should be doing more of. That inspired me to write more, and that’s the material that we’ve been playing up until now. Since we can’t all get together until December, I decided to write a new music. For this gig, I wanted to have two sets of all new music, but that’s not going to happen. Though we are going to have one new set of music.
Mainly, I’ve been writing from the piano, but I feel I’ve exhausted everything I can do at the piano right now, so for this gig I composed everything from the bass. This is a bit of a change for me, and I definitely needed a goal like this gig to get me to try something new and finish it.
TJG: Why did you pick these young guys to be in the band, rather than players with whom you have a longer history?
HR: First of all, these guys are mature beyond their years. I had heard them a lot and knew them and knew that they could really play. Second, they could do the gigs! Because I wanted to do six gigs as a band, if I wanted to do that with Eric Harland, Taylor Eigsti, Logan Richardson, and Charles Altura, we could only do that many gigs over the course of like three years. The young guys were here in the city, could rehearse when we needed to, and then play all the gigs. Having those regular monthly gigs also really helped me with the writing because I always had a deadline. This process really helped me progress as a composer.
TJG: As you’ve added more compositions to the book, have you found the personalities of the players coming through more clearly in what you’re writing?
HR: In the beginning, when we started playing together, that wasn’t something I was consciously thinking about. One process that I’ve used for a while is to improvise a track, and then add on top of it. Lately, a lot of the songs have been complete improvisations from start to finish. It might take a little time to get going, and I might do some cut and paste with different ideas, but everything comes starts from the same place.
However, on my latest tunes, I’m really starting to hear them. And for a couple of the new ones for this gig, I was really hearing Charles on them. I think that’s a result of this whole process of working on my skill in composition and getting my ears together in that way. That different way of hearing is definitely something I wanted to get to.
With both writing and practicing, I’ve found it helpful to make that process like a game. I’ll be home for two weeks and for those two weeks, I won’t play anything fast. Whatever I’ll be playing and practicing—scales or whatever—are going to be very, very slow. Sometimes it’s for no other reason other than to see if I have the discipline to do something for that long. That was the premise for starting to write songs on bass—let me take these two weeks and only write from the bass and not go to the piano. Now it seems kind of obvious, since I’m a lot better at the bass than at the piano, the writing has been a lot faster, actually.
TJG: Have you found that these compositions written at the bass sound markedly different than those written at the piano? Can you hear the source instrument in some way?
HR: Not really, since I still write in an additive process, building up from improvisations. I feel that right from the bass lines, I can tell what the harmonies and the rhythms are. What’s different is that I now I feel like I know what the tunes will actually sound like in the group. Sometimes, I’ve brought tunes that I wrote at the piano in and they sound like shit when we play through them. And I’ve been like, “I thought these were going to sound so good!” With this different process, I just feel that the tunes are going to sound like how I think they sound, for the most part. When I’ve written from the bass in the past, I haven’t worked in this additive way—I would write the whole piece at once. I would use all of the open strings, and it would mostly be in the key of E or A.
I will say that a big difference now is that at the beginning of this process, I felt that I wasn’t practicing bass enough. Now that I’m writing from it, I’m at the instrument all day. It’s nice being able to work with that kind of efficiency.
TJG: When dealing with your original compositions with the band, how do you balance getting the exact sound you want with letting the other players do what they do best?
HR: I assume that the musicians have enough intuition to know how certain ideas should be interpreted—what notes should be short, what should be long. I don’t mind reading music that’s heavily notated, but instead of hyper-managing the performance, I prefer to leave stuff open to the players. If I have to say something about a part, I will. That’s how a lot of the bandleaders that I’ve worked with lead a band. I feel that the older that you get, the more music that you listen to, your intuition increases. This is what impresses me most about this crew—they have really good intuition. I don’t have to say things too often. Even if a beat gets dropped or something gets messed up or someone gets totally lost, I don’t really care about that as long as the energy is there. Because I’m doing that stuff all the time!
TJG: When you’re in performance with the group, what are the kinds of things you can do from the bass to alter the trajectory of the music in a given moment?
HR: I feel that there is a duality that you have to deal with as a rhythm section player—you have to be supportive to the other players, but then also be able to step out front when the time comes, like when taking a solo. For me early on, my emotional state and my connection to what was going on was drastically different for when I was accompanying than when I was soloing. I definitely preferred to be in the zone of soloing mentally, so there came a point when I decided that I was just going to stay in that zone. I don’t really change my mindset about instigating something or moving the band to a new place—I just stay in that zone. It makes me very vulnerable, but by staying in that mental place, I felt that I played with a different energy. Something changed. It comes back to intuition—how to stay present in that mindset.
The Harish Raghavan Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, September 15, 2018. The group features Mr. Raghavan on bass, Immanuel Wilkins on alto saxophone, Charles Altura on guitar, Micah Thomas on piano, and Jeremy Dutton on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.