I recently stumbled upon the short film pasted below about the history of jazz in India, primarily in and around Bombay, from the 1930s on. It’s a fascinating story. Nowadays, and indeed for the past two-three decades, there has been some really interesting avant-garde jazz coming out of India. The most famous today is probably Vijay Iyer, who’s musical productions incorporate elements of both east and west. Iyer’s music, as one article put it, “is not Indian jazz — and is not NOT Indian Jazz.” Is it fusion? What is fusion anyway? Of course there’s Ravi Shankar, who’s shared many stages with famous Amer-Euro jazz masters (John Coltrane’s son, Ravi, is named after the Indian maestro). NPR had a good spot on Indian-inflected jazz in 2010, “Facing the East: Indo-Jazz Fusion,” which is worth a listen (or a read — the transcript is there, too).
It’s tough to find any literature on jazz and India that doesn’t use the term “fusion” to describe it. But the word somehow often spoils the product. I mean no offense to Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles, or any other others who pulled it off. But the truth is, there’s some awful fusion out there. The NDTV video on Indian jazz is not about fusion, thankfully, and it presents a good deal interesting and useful data about the genre of jazz as a truly cosmopolitan musical vernacular.
Moving on…traveling the other way, from west to east, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra employed copious amounts of Indian classical music and instruments, such as the sarod, sitar and tabla, to pretty big success. And my favorite, the inimitable Hamid Drake can be seen beating the tabla occasionally when he’s backing Fred Anderson.
What I find especially appealing about this video from NDTV (see the whole 22 minute video here) is that it doesn’t show India as a place from which to pick and choose musical elements. Rather, we see Bombay as a bona fide jazz scene.
P.S. This video is an especially fine treat because it gives us a couple clips of one of my favorite Hindi cinema segments, Amitabh Bachchan singing “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves.” It’s a surreal scene in one of the most brilliant Hindi films ever made, Amar, Akbar, Anthony (अमर अकबर एन्थोनी, 1977).
P.P.S. If you watch the entire NDTV jazz film, you’ll learn a little bit about Anthony Gonsalves.