Jazz is transportive. It's in its history. It has brought memories of the slave experience to every era of the post-bellum union. The echoes of European concert halls to gritty American juke joints. Stories of the rural South to the urban industrialised North.
Do you get enjoyment from touring the world with you a band?
No - because I'm bringing the pleasure and whenever I go someplace, I'm going there to please somebody else. So I don't get any kick out of a foreign country unless I go there not to play, but on a vacation. - Miles Davis, New York, January 22. 1968.
Jazz is transportive. It's in its history. It' has brought memories of the slave experience to every era of the postbellum union. The echoes of European concert halls to gritty American juke joints. Stories of the rural South to the urban industrialised North. It has cast the spotlight of the stage upon virtuostic black artists performing before darkened white audiences. Regardless of when I listen to Mile's Davis' streaming trumpet, cool as an eddy of leaves on a concrete sidewalk, it takes me back to fall in Chicago, no matter what season it is, no matter what city I'm in.
What about contemporary jazz — does it still cross borders, real and imagined? Does it still transport meanings and stories and people? Under a rickety chandelier in a Brooklyn walk-up I talked to a couple of young South Asian-American jazz musicians, Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahantappa, in order to find out. The question seemed particularly fitting since the two of them, as part of the Vijay Iyer Quartet, had been in India in November to play at Jazz Yatra, an international jazz festival in Mumbai.
Rudy and Vijay look very similar on paper. Both are second generation Indians who compose their own music, have released CDs, play internationally to critical acclaim and aspire to "portray the culture of their ancestry through their music." But in person they're entirely different quantities.
Vijay, with his large, earnest eyes that belie a measured manner, a scientist's reserve, explains how, inspired by the sounds of his older sister practising her scales in their upstate New York home, he taught himself how to play the piano. Though passionate about this extra curricular pleasure, he received a bachelor's degree in physics from Yale and pursued a doctorate in the same subject before switching whole-heartedly to music.
Rudy, on the other hand, conveys a lazy ambivalence with his loose ponytail and textured drawl (he grew up in Colorado, has spent time in Texas). But, when you touch upon a subject that interests him, he fires up and speaks from the gut, not afraid to lethis sentences unravel into honest confusion or laughter. He has studied the saxophone since he was in the 4th grade, attending, since that time, both the Berklee College of Music in Boston and DePaul University's Jazz Composition program.
Vijay's album, Architextures 1995, (Asian Improv Records) and Rudy's, Yatra 1996 (AEMMP Records), were both inspired by an earlier journey to India, (prior to this last November's Jazz Yatra trip.) As a first journey back to the subcontinent, Vijay's trip was undertaken as an adult. It was an introduction to India that was not one of those childhood vacations when parents negotiated the hard realities: a grandparent's lack of English, boiled water, food without ketchup, the absence of toilet paper. It was an introduction, however, to an India that hits you without an intermediary: the poverty, the pollution, the crowding, the inequality.
So how do two American boys, from secure families that enjoy a certain amount of privilege here in the States (Vijay's father is a pharmaceutical chemist, Rudy's a physics professor) make sense of India, its fierce social realities? Sense enough, on Vijay's part, to criticise a western hankering for "baubles and bindi culture," instead of a true Indian experience. Sense enough, on Rudy's part, to name his first album Yatra - a Sanskrit word meaning spiritual journey. Didn't the other side of India — not the cultural heritage enacted in carpeted homes across America, which forever trap a masala odour, and produce doctors, accountants and other similarly scented type — but the country itself, with its disenfranchised millions, ever make these young musicians… doubt? Ever made them question the words on the quartet's bio, 'the portrayal of the culture of their ancestry though their music'?
Vijay's first adult journey to India happened when he was 24, with his family. He says, "That trip rocked my world in so many ways. When I came back, I was disoriented, but I couldn't really figure out why. It made everything that I was dealing with petty. All this made me very conscious of how I represented the country in my music." How could he still 11 see himself as a representative when his life had nothing to do with that country? He replied, "I don't think 1 have nothing to do with that country.' I actually feel that I am a part of it. Thinking about those people makes me feel some sort of connection, like I could have been one of them, and I don't know how far fetched that is. But I feel more connected to those people than I do to the poor people here."
When I ask Rudy what he thinks, he says, "I don't know. I'll have to think about that."
Vijay explains how he related that trip to his music: "I decided not to make too much of an effort musically, to let things happen subconsciously. I didn't make too much of an effort to portray or integrate Indian techniques. I think I just decided, 'I am a part of that,' and that somehow was coming through me. It became an almost spiritual decision. My music is Indian because I am Indian. I could have been among those people, walking around."
Rudy, on the other hand, doesn't think he could ever explain how the experience of India translated musically, but he admits the influence is there, "definitely." The title song of his album was inspired by driving along the coast of India to a gig outside of Madras while listening to Bismillah Kahn. the great master of the shenai. That was four years ago, during Rudy's first adult experience of India, he was 23, but he went to perform with Jazz Yatra, and that year the festival included performances outside Mumbai.
"When I went there that time I wasn't really dealing with anything Indian in my music. I probably started dealing with if after I got back. Most of the stuff on the CD was recorded over the course of the few months when I got back. I think that's why I started thinking about the importance of being Indian."
Yatra is Rudy's first CD. Vijay's first, Memorophilia, was made with the same label, Asianlmprov, in 1995. According to Rudy his most recent trip in November made him feel more of a connection, "But there's always this displaced feeling. Especially since I hadn't been there in ten years and India is this kind of exotic place that all these Westerners want to go to and fantasise about. Being Indian by descent and not having been there a lot - it's a strange thing to deal with. You meet so many people who say 'Oh god, I would love to go to India,' but it's always this kind of mystical fantasy they have. And there's the other side that go, 'God isn't the poverty just terrible there?' It's one or the other, and it was good to go there and just see it, because now when I hear either of those things my gut reaction is, 'Fuck you. You don't know what you're talking about,' you know? It's like you kind of put this massive, ancient country into this box of either being this mystical haven or this place of homeless people you could never ever deal with."
Vijay seems to agree with this, he urges Rudy on with a firm, "Right!" How does Rudy understand the country if he's not putting it in either box?
"I just saw it as something richer than either of those things could ever do it justice, you know. I guess the biggest and most moving experience I had was when I went to this concert in Bangalore. I had never seen any Indian classical music in India before and it was amazing. This concert went all night, it started at 8 o'clock and went till sunrise, and there were thousands of people there. It was in this village where this dance troupe runs a school. There was this big open area where the performance was and everyone just sat on the side of this hill. It was amazing. And that really got me thinking, not only watching the music but watching all these other people watching the music, it was really something special."
Rudy's memory makes Vijay remember how his trip made him feel more and less Indian. "I felt I understood that India was this vast place with so many different ways of life. I saw my way of life as part of it, so I felt like whatever I did was valid as some sort of statement, some outcome of the Indian Diaspora. Beyond that I didn't see that I had anything else to prove."
During the trip in November how were they received by their family and the public as musicians, as South Asian-American jazz musicians?
Rudy shrugs and says, "I didn't get anymore respect from my family. I showed them an article in the paper and they were just like 'mmmm'," he makes a distracted turn away with his face, "I was like 'There's this photograph of me in the newspaper, you're never fucking going to be in the newspaper!' I actually had this one uncle who heckled me. I wanted to pop that guy. I think everybody hates him. I think even his kids hate him. He'd ask me, 'You went to college for music didn't you?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and he like shook his head and kind of looked at all the other relatives in the room to see if they shared his thoughts."
"Your family seemed really into it." Rudy prompts Vijay before I can.
"Well they were just into seeing me. It became this big family event because my mother was there. I think my mother was definitely an instigator of respect or enthusiasm, and my whole family was glad that I was coming. They were impressed that I had my own means," Vijay doesn't seem to want to elaborate on the difference between his family and Rudy's.
But he goes on about the enthusiasm of the Indian audiences when they performed. "I thought they were really into it. probably much more so than anything else on the bill." Other than a Sri Lankan pianist, who did straight out jazz, and a few others who backed up an Indian vocalist, they were the only performers of Indian descent. Vijay surmises, "I think the audience was interested in seeing what we were up to. What we were doing was decidedly different from what anyone else was doing. I think our stuff was the most organic expression of some aspect of Indian culture. We were also definitely playing jazz, that was not in question. It wasn't like we weren't trying to stick one thing on top of the other."
Both Rudy and Vijay agree that the tastes of the audience was pretty refined. Rudy says, "Some of the fans blew us away," but the quality of the other musicians in the festival "was pretty mediocre."
Vijay explains, "There were some people there who were record collectors, who'd listened to jazz 'longer than we'd been alive', as they told us. But there were also people who were sitting in the cheapy seats in the back who were totally down with it," Rudy remembers. "Yeah, who booed off this guy who came on after us," Vijay smiles.
Do I hear these experiences in their music? At home I put in Vijay's album, which has songs with titles like, Microchips and Bullock Carts, Meeting of Three Rivers, Sadhu and Paradise Lost. His tunes can be sparse, relying as much on silence as on music, which builds tensions that are almost narrative. Vijay seems to be trying to tell stories with his compositions, especially the piano solos, and sometimes his characters affect Indian accents. Sometimes I look up at the box emanating these sounds in surprise, because I hear a phrase I haven't heard in a while, the kind my cousin struck when she played her sitar at home in Kerala.
I actually had this one uncle who heckled me. I wanted to pop that guy. He'd ask me, 'You went to college for music didn't you?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and he like shook his head and kind of looked at all the other relatives in the room to see if they shared his thoughts.