With multiple degrees in jazz and improvisation, and a wide range of skills and interests, Utsav Lal has found a relatively unexplored niche as a pianist within the world of Indian Classical music. Having studied with legendary Indian Classical teachers including Wasifuddin Dagar and Sharat Srivastava, the result is a young pianist with a meditative, patient, powerful approach to the piano. This Wednesday, Lal will perform two sets of music at The Jazz Gallery: the first set a traditional exploration of a single raga followed by one or more compositions, and the second set a presentation of compositions featuring tabla. We spoke at length with Lal about his move to New York and approach to learning Indian Classical Music on the piano.
The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for making the time to chat. Where are you living now?
Utsav Lal: I’ve been living in Bushwick for a little over a year now. It’s been great. New York is like a third round of school, in a way. It’s been amazing to arrive and meet so many people. I’d met a lot of people living in New York while I was living in Boston and studying at NEC, and Boston was great, but things felt somewhat detached from actually making music or seeing how it all fit together.
TJG: How does being a musician in New York feel more connected to the reality of what music is about for you?
UL: There’s a lot more to bounce things off. At school, at least in Boston, it’s mostly students. In school, you’re working hard and interacting with your peers, which was great at NEC because we all come from such different places. But it’s a small school. I moved to New York, and now I’m meeting people from completely different backgrounds, people who didn’t go to conservatory, people who have been working musicians for forty years and have a completely different kind of education and energy. I’m learning so much about different styles of music, and there are so many ways to get different kinds of feedback, perspectives, opinions. There are people I play with who have been hopping trains since they ran away from home at a young age. I’m living with a guy who has been teaching me these amazing country songs. I’m getting all of these new perspectives, and have been seeing how people react to my perspective too. Plus, it’s a great community. People really travel across the city to see each other.
TJG: In this new environment, what have you been noticing about your piano playing?
UL: I play Indian Classical Music on the piano, an instrument that isn’t really suited for the genre. Many of the most special things about that genre of music can’t really be done on the piano. During my jazz undergrad and my classical piano training, I listened to very genre-specific pianists, like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Brad Mehldau, Wynton Kelly, and the equivalent classical figures. So, the biggest change for me lately has been finding pianists who aren’t so easy to put in a box based on how and what they do, pianists who are in tune with their upbringing and life experiences.
One pianist I’m particularly interested in is Emahoy Tsegué Maryam. She learned classical piano when she was young, had to flee Ethiopia and had to live in all these different places. She spent years in a monastery, not much contact with anything else, and plays beautiful improvised adaptations of folk music as well as her own compositions. She has a completely different way of pedaling, phrasing, composing, improvising. Music is her life.
TJG: At The Jazz Gallery, I know the evening will be divided into two sets. With the first set, Alap-Jod-Jhala, will you be improvising on a single raga?
UL: Yes, and I’ll probably play a couple compositions at the end of that. I studied with Wasifuddin Dagar who is from a historic family of Indian musicians. They play mostly in this hardcore traditional way. The Alap-Jod-Jhala is developed slowly, note-by-note, and is usually forty minutes to an hour. That’s the main body of the performance, and then they usually play a composition at the end of that. I’m not sure yet which raga I will perform—it’s often nice to decide when I arrive at the space. I’ll probably play the Alap-Jod-Jhala in a super traditional way for 30-40 minutes, then play some compositions. For the second half, I will be joined by Mir Naqibul Islam on Tabla, and we will play some traditional Indian Classical compositions in the traditional way, then play a couple of pieces at the end.
TJG: Tell me about your personal approach to becoming familiar with a raga.
UL: The way that my teacher teaches is that you sit there for three or four hours. He sings a phrase, you play it back. If he doesn’t like how you played it, he’ll keep singing it again and again. Once you get a phrase, he’ll sing another one, and it goes on like that. If you have any questions, he may or may not answer them. Through repetition, what’s important begins to stick. It’s a very organic, beautiful, long-scale way of teaching. You gradually begin to get a sense of the rules, and when that happens, you just play. You figure out the core phrases, the core ideas, ways that you can express those ideas, and improvise with all of these things. I also do a lot of listening of the same ragas performed by different people, because everyone has different perspectives. There’s a huge amount of resources out there for developing practice and style.
TJG: Thanks for chatting—we’re excited to have you at the Gallery!
UL: I’m excited to be there. I’ve been in the audience at the Gallery for so many shows over the last few years, and I’m really looking forward to performing there.
The Jazz Gallery and Brooklyn Raga Massive present pianist Utsav Lal at the Gallery on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. Mr. Lal will perform the first set solo, and will be joined by Mir Naqibul Islam on tabla for the second set. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved table seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.