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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Abhik Mukherjee and Sameer Gupta. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Beginning with a humble jam session that today has become something much more, Brooklyn Raga Massive is an open collective of curious musicians dedicated to bringing Indian classical music to life. The Massive also regularly programs events, one of which will be held at The Jazz Gallery this Wednesday. Master sitarist Abhik Mukherjee and jazz drummer/tabla player Sameer Gupta will sit down for an open musical dialogue, performing pieces from the classical idiom, more contemporary ragas, and even some original music within the fabric of the tradition. We spoke at length with both Mukherjee and Gupta about the magic of New York, the growth of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and the vast similarities between Indian classical and jazz.

The Jazz Gallery: We’re looking forward to having you both at The Jazz Gallery! What does it mean to you, personally, to be playing Indian classical music at a jazz club?

Abhik Muhkerjee: I’m really excited to play. Jazz and Indian classical music go together in so many improvisational aspects. As far as my knowledge goes, the two share modal structures, thematic improvisation, improvisation on two notes, between two structures. There are rules and restrictions within both traditions, especially Indian classical, but within that, the sky’s the limit.

TJG: So what will you be playing at The Jazz Gallery?

Sameer Gupta: When we booked the show, Abhik and I said, “We’re in New York City, this is a jazz club, there may be a gap to bridge.” Your average jazz fan might love high energy and virtuosity, and I sometimes wonder whether they know how amazing Indian classical music is on all the same levels. These musicians have the ability to play with unbelievable polyrhythms and layers, things which are so appealing in jazz. We want to show how exciting this music is, it’s really quite something to watch.

AM: So in the first set, I will be playing a pure classical raga, with a short talk beforehand about how it’s improvised and what’s going on. In the second set, I have composed a raga, so I will be playing that to show how classical music is open to new compositions. The structure and scope never change, it has been the same for thousands of years, but the style of performance and improvisation continues to change. But the structure never changes. Do you know what I mean?

TJG: Not exactly. Tell me more.

AM: When you play a raga, you do the introductory part without the tabla. There is gradual stylistic development, a gradual introduction of the themes. You slowly introduce your raga to the audience. How does the raga behave? We don’t treat it as a fixed structure of notes. It has a soul. It comes to power, you watch it flourish. So then, we start developing. There’s a rhythmic section, but still with no percussion. We develop it, and then play with the tabla a cycle of maybe sixteen beats, ten beats, seven beats, it depends. Like jazz, there are so many rhythmic cycles. And also, finally, I think I will be concluding with a raga in which the performer uses all twelve notes. Not erratically, there is a format, but the lessons I’ve learned from jazz, I can use them here to develop a structure, to demonstrate similarity between the genres.

TJG: So Abhik, coming from Kolkata, when did you begin to learn about jazz?

AM: I began listening to jazz only after coming to New York seven years ago. I was mesmerized by it. I had heard of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Miles Davis, the stars. In India, these people are famous. But I never knew the scene was so big until I came to New York. At the time, my wife got her chance to do her masters at NYU, so I followed her here. It could not have been any other city in the United States: This is a mecca of musicians. I’ve spent a lot of time with Marc Cary, who Sameer plays drums for, as well as Michael Gam, Jay Gandi. I go to a lot of concerts. In the beginning, I didn’t have much idea about jazz. Jay and Michael, they started teaching me things here and there. I’m a slow learner [laughs], but it has been great. I performed for John Coltrane’s birthday last year, and all I can say is wow. I found the improvisational structures very similar to a lot I hear in Indian classical music. It’s music, I can listen and begin to understand. For world musicians, this is the city to be in. If you want to listen to Brazilian, for example, you can find it. Everything is happening every week, somewhere, in any borough. This amazes me. I love the city so much because of this. It’s a whole world, compact in the five boroughs.

TJG: Speaking of New York, Sameer, how did you and Abhik meet, and what’s the Brooklyn Raga Massive?

SG: Abhik and I met through the Brooklyn Raga Massive, a very fluid organization where people come from all around to just play, hang, meet up. We connected through that community, started playing more and more, developed this cool dynamic with each other. He’s originally from Kolkota, he came here, found this community of likeminded folks in Brooklyn. As a jazz musician originally, I can really appreciate the power of community, finding a way to nourish yourself and meet people a very difficult city. Artists can find each other and support each other through this collective effort. If you come to New York and can’t find likeminded people, you can feel crushed in a lot of ways. Raga Massive has provided that for a lot of people. Indian classical musicians, or any musicians for that matter, can connect, network, share resources, and build careers with each other.

TJG: You’ve spoken about the Raga Massive in an amorphous way; what’s your role in upholding the infrastructure and making sure it continues to thrive?

SG: I was actually one of the very first people involved. The first thing we offered was our weekly gathering, which still happens every Wednesday. I had already been trying to start an Indian classical music jam session in the Bay Area, which already has the Ali Akbar College of Music, and in general a lot of good Indian classical already. Here in New York, there’s a certain mentality: People understand the power of the collective as a social means of coalescing and for a bigger social impact. You see a lot of successful group efforts coming out of New York. Groove Collective, Giant Step, all sorts of groups that help musicians find ways to come together. The jam session started as an attempt to get that right. “Let’s all meet once a week, with good musicians, beer, it’ll be casual.” When we’re not playing, we’ll listen to great music. That’s the vibe. And I really really try to model it off the jazz jam session. I see how valuable it is for new faces in the scene. It’s very democratic, there’s no hierarchy, you don’t have to sign on with a guru or great teacher to join our crew. You just have to play, you have to be down to work with other people, and cultivate a collaborative spirit. A lot of Indian classical music is institutionalized: There’s not a sense of decentralized collective of practitioners who are working together to further the cause, you know? People doing what they want to do, egos get involved, but it’s a great challenge.

TJG: If you’re playing Indian classical music in NYC, you’re likely not playing to an informed audience. Do you miss that?

AM: Frankly speaking, the audience in New York might not be technically informed, but music can speak across many languages. I’ve never felt a lack of engagement in New York. The audience is always open and responsive. They start liking the music, they give a response, just like in jazz. Technically, the grammar of the music might not be known, but so many musicians come to my shows. There’s encouragement from the audience, it’s always good. Classical music is very interactive. If the audience likes it, they will encourage the artist by chanting and cheering, so the performers will improvise on that section more. That’s the fun part.

TJG: Because it is a classical, traditional form of performance, where’s the line between flexibility and dedication to the tradition? It’s a relevant question for jazz, but I’m not sure to the extent it’s relevant for Indian classical music.

SG: That’s one of the profound connections between Indian classical and jazz. You have to do certain things to establish a rapport. For example, at a jazz show, you might play some Monk, some Miles, certain artists that make it clear about the language you’re speaking. For some people, that’s too traditional, that’s too ‘inside the box’. In Indian classical, it’s the same thing. You can play traditionally and conservatively: There’s still tons of room to improvise, but the rules give you the whole package. You can learn to play like a great maestro if you want, like so many jazz musicians do. You hear trumpet players who sound like Freddie Hubbard by embracing a certain vocabulary, which is now known as a traditional vocabulary. In Indian classical, it’s a hard zone. People feel the urge to be creative, but there are such strict traditional rules, you could stay there and have a very fulfilling career. Same in jazz. If you get signed for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, you’re going to play fairly traditional stuff, but you’re getting a great salary, doing amazing shows and touring around the world. Both systems have echelons to reach, but there are some musicians who are super creative or well-known, taking risks that are not looked at with as much legitimacy, because they’re not conforming to the traditional. Jazz in a way has a bit more freedom: Someone like Ornette Coleman can come in and break the mold. People get thrown off by it, but there’s a fair amount of people who dig it, including people who love his band, Charlie Hayden, Billy Higgins, and so on, and they create a following. In Indian Classical music, if you take too much of a risk, you can disturb the mood that you’ve created, so there’s a bit of sacredness, in a way. You’re trying to summon a feeling, create an ambiance. It’s a fragile thing. If you hit a wrong note, bring in an unestablished sound, for a lot of musicians, that’ll be a real big foul. But by the same token, many famous Indian classical musicians have broken the rules, and they’re considered legends.

TJG: Abhik, you’ve given workshops around the world, from India and Singapore to Germany and Argentina. Do you see varied responses to Indian classical music across the globe?

AM: See, whenever I go for workshops, for example in Argentina, I have a wonderful student who runs a school out there. So when I go, I have all these students to teach, for at least three weeks or a month. They come to me from morning to evening, it’s music going on all the time, like India. People at my workshops are usually pretty open, because they’re already into Indian music. And similarly, New York is a city where I find that people are so open to different types of music. It’s a unique thing. People are always saying, “Oh, this is happening, let’s give it a try.” I get amazed by the life the city. You can call it Paris in the 19th and 20th century.

TJG: I see that later this month, you’re giving a guided listening session at Brooklyn Brainery. What will you be playing, and what will you focus on?

AM: Yes, on the 13th of April. Why don’t you come? It’ll be fun. I will focus mainly on the instrumental part. I won’t talk about the singing and lyrics much, because the language might be a problem. So with the instrumental part, I’ll talk about how the music developed by playing recordings from the early 20th century, all the way to the modern recordings. It’ll be a journey, with a little bit of history, because history, socioeconomics, politics, and geography play big roles in the development of music around the world.

TJG: I’ll check it out after the show at The Gallery! Thank you both for taking the time to get us up to speed about the upcoming show.

SG: We’re excited. Abhik is a master, technically brilliant, he can elevate the room. He and I have a cool rapport. As a jazz drummer, one of the things I do is take some extra risks. It might just be my mentality, but I’m not the most conservative tabla player. I have fun, I get in there, have dialogues with the soloist. We breathe together. We’ll be two people having a dialogue. You’ll feel a real communication happening on stage.

Abhik Mukherjee, sitar, and Sameer Gupta, tabla, present “Raga Roots” at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, April 5th, 2017. The show is co-presented by Brooklyn Raga Massive. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.