Arun Ramamurthy navigates both jazz and Indian Classical circles. He’s a Carnatic violinist with a vested interest in improvisation and broadening musical horizons. Not only is he the co-founder of Brooklyn Raga Massive, and he also plays music that he calls “jazz carnatica” in a trio setting.
Ramamurthy and his trio, featuring Michael Gam on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums, will play two sets at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th. We caught up with Arun by phone to discuss the different musical worlds he navigates and the way he finds his voice and a cohesive community in performance.
The Jazz Gallery: Your trio plays jazz carnatica; that’s also the title of your record. What does that mean to you?
Arun Ramamurthy: Basically, the music is drawing from the Carnatic repertoire. So a lot of the compositions we’re doing are actually part of the traditional songs of South Indian classical music, and we recontextualize the music within this jazz trio—a lot of the elements of jazz, or other styles of music that don’t exist in Carnatic music like ensemble playing. Playing a role, collectively making the sounds together, is what I also want to experiment with in this trio—how each person can kind of bring things to the table. In Carnatic music a lot of times the violinist would shadow a vocalist or the percussionist, and the percussionist is also shadowing and playing to this one sound; there’s this one linear movement as opposed to everyone playing their own role and together it becomes this one sound as a band.
I also try to see into these Carnatic songs and view it from a different place, a different perspective. There are certain songs, apart from compositions, that can be explored, and when a bass line is put behind it and Sameer [Gupta] and [regular bassist] Perry [Wortman] are hearing in one way, we can vibe and vamp on something that creates a whole new atmosphere within a song that didn’t always have that. I’m trying explore the Carnatic songs that have existed for a long time, and breathe a little new life into them from my own perspective.
TJG: There are also new compositions that you play.
AR: Yeah. Many of those songs, I’m using rhythmic concepts that exist in Carnatic music, and then using that as a foundation for these new compositions, moving between different rhythmic concepts. There will be some rhythm in the bass and the melody on top of that, different repeating patterns that sit over the time cycle. I’ll usually pick a raga, a scale that I want to write in. And I’ll pick a thala, the time signature that I want to write in. So there’s a rhythmic landscape that rides underneath and then the melody is kind of sitting on top, and then we interact and play with each other, adding another dimension.
A lot of this Carnatic training has helped me seeing things rhythmically in a different way than a jazz musician might. But it would all make sense to both of us, and we would all feel it in a different way. That’s the excitement: we feel things in different ways, and the result is surprising. I think the original songs especially, I think they’re really drawn from the experience of playing with these guys and what they would feel and how they would feel certain things. I find that some of the inspirations come from all the different artists that I end up collaborating with. You hear certain things that really make sense to you, and then I try to incorporate that into my own language, and when you internalize that it comes out as you, but you’re still coming from the root of Carnatic music.
TJG: You were trained as a classical musician, in Indian and western traditions. What led you to jazz?
AR: I think the spontaneity. I didn’t always listen to jazz growing up, it was something I started to listen to later in life, maybe my 20’s. I think my interaction with jazz musicians was one of the main reasons I got more interested in it; it was through meeting them and playing. It’s the freedom to express yourself as you wish in that moment, which is similar to Carnatic music or Indian classical music. That is a common thread between the two styles, and it was something I found whenever I played with jazz musicians. It made me want to explore that a little bit more.
TJG: Because improvisation is so strong in both genres, do you feel like there’s one tradition or another you’re coming from when you approach the trio music?
AR: Yeah, I feel like I’m coming from a Carnatic place. I think, though, my style has been evolving through the different kinds of music I’ve played with and have really gotten into. So I would say that the way the songs are arranged may come from other influences, and may be more of a conscious choice about how I would like to make the overall feel happen. But when I’m improvising and really going through it, I’m trying my best to come from my own organic place. A lot of it is influenced by what I hear, so if the bass player goes off and kind of takes it to a different place, I will follow. The more that you play and interact with other artists and have that open mind, being willing to follow, the more free you can be.
TJG: The trio is violin, bass, and drums. How did you come to that instrumentation?
AR: I met Sameer, the drummer, ten years ago. We met playing in one of his ensembles. Sameer and I started playing a lot together in many different contexts. We play now in Brooklyn Raga Massive, which is an arts collective that we and others started some time ago. We get the chance to collaborate in a lot of different ways. We have a great chemistry, and it kind of started there. Then the obvious choice was to get a bass player, to help move the music. It kind of stayed there—we have guests that come and sit in, on hammered dulcimer, and other violinists, and a flutist, and that’s always exciting, but the core group is a trio.
TJG: How does Brooklyn Raga Massive, that community, shape the music that you’re making?
AR: It’s great. I think the community has been here in New York for some time. Brooklyn Raga Massive was a group of friends, playing a lot of music together and really trying to explore each others’ music, to help inform ourselves. Through Brooklyn Raga Massive’s weekly series and the jam sessions and being onstage with musicians you’d never played with before, I think that helped really cultivate the scene. It’s made it possible and given a space for people to explore themselves. I find that it’s been really integral, actually, in my development and my musical choices. It’s been a wonderful experience.
TJG: You do work as a teacher as well. Has that impacted your performance life?
AR: I teach a little bit. I have students on skype from around the country that I’ll teach. For Carnatic music, right here in Brooklyn, you don’t get a lot of kids who are really interested in learning like that. In traditional places; in certain suburbs, in New Jersey, which is where I grew up, there are more Indians, so there are more opportunities to teach kids from the ground up.
I think the interesting thing about teaching is that it makes you think about why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s easy to go onstage and play, and feel it or go through your own thought process and play; whatever comes out comes out. Or you really work on your technique, but you’re not really always thinking about why you play something the way you do. When you teach it, you have to explain to somebody else. You have to really break it down to its simplest form, and that can be really educational to yourself: you realize why you make the choices you do. Why are you playing it with this finger and not that finger? You learn a lot in that process, because it makes you ask, “Maybe there’s a better way.”
The Arun Ramamurthy Trio and guests play The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, January 26th, 2017. The group features Arun Ramamurthy on violin, Michael Gam on bass, and Sameer Gupta on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.