Interview concerning Indian music influence with June Thomas

June: First of all, I want to thank you so much- I know you have a busy schedule and you’ve got so much going on; I do appreciate you taking the time to do this for me. It’s wonderful. So, how are you?
Dave: I’m good. I’m sitting in the office trying to do some catching up. I’m doing a record of Beatles tunes….
June: Oh, great.
Dave: Fifteen tunes that I’ve been fooling around with.
June: That’s great. I thought of you right away when it came to this project regarding the Hindustani Indian music as applied to jazz, as I knew you’ve had some dealings with that and some influence along those lines. Could you tell me a little about your first encounters with Indian music and a little bit of those stories, what inspired you, what aspects of it interested you right away, etc.?
Dave: Absolutely.
June: Thank you.
Dave: First of all, I am from the 60s generation. Collectively we had much more access to “world music” than previously. And you know, in some ways you’ve got to thank the Beatles for exposure to the whole Indian vibe in America. Certainly-it was here-guys would come to do their spiritual studies and so forth, people would go to India and so on, but for it to be on the map, it was really in the ’60’s. Of course, Ravi Shankar stands out as one that people like me would have heard probably, first.
June: Yes.
Dave: And this, of course, was one of my first exposures to any kind of world music at all. I mean, as I said, it was not that common to find it then. I was very interested in it and in some sense confirmed all this interest when I recorded “On the Corner” with Miles Davis which has the Indian element front and center.
June: Oh, yes.
Dave: And at the same time I did John McLaughlin’s album called “My Goals Beyond.” That was 1971 or 72; and on that record he had Badal Roy, who, in your work, I’m sure you’ll come across. Badal was not, by trade, a tabla player. He actually went to America to study accounting at NYU- but was Indian and hung out at the Indian restaurants in an area near Second Avenue and Sixth Street which was very well known for a lot of restaurants. He started playing tabla and John McLaughlin walked in, had Indian food, and said I’m doing a record and I’d like to have tabla. That was my first exposure hands-on to seeing a tabla in front of me and playing with it. By complete chance, and because Badal was in the right place at the right time, about a year and a half later, he ended up on some tracks of “On the Corner.” I looked over there and heard the sound of this instrument and of course, on that recording there was also a sita. I said “Wow, this is it!” This is what I’ve been listening to -there it is- so enchanting and so beautiful, hand drum-the way it sounds, the pitch and everything. Eventually, to make a long story short, after Miles I began my first band as a leader with the name Lookout Farm. In those days we all had band names. I had Badal in the band for a good six to nine months, culminating in a state department tour of India in 1975. So over this period-from the mid-sixties until the mid-seventies, I was just very enamored by Indian music. I had the vocals with the Daga Brothers, the Ali Brothers, Bismillah Khan who played the shehnai, which is a sort of a big oboe and so on. I just loved the music. In 1976 I took a year and a half in California to live in the Bay area, and I studied what’s called the bansurai flute, you know, the long bamboo flute. I studied with a man who was studying at the Ali Akbar School which was in San Rafael, and I think it’s still there. It was quite a center for learning Indian music. So I would say, to sum it up, it was a ten year period, more or less, where I was really interested in it, trying to play it on the Indian flue, trying to play it on the regular C-Western flute, and really trying to incorporate it in my music. I had Indian based tunes; one of my records, an A&M record called “Sweet Hand Roy” which was what I called Badal because when you said to an Indian someone has “sweet hands,” that means one has talent.
June: Interesting.
Dave: He became a very personal friend of mine. There were two specific things I got from Indian music besides the spiritual aspect which is very heavy. Indian music, of course, is very concentrated on rhythm and melody with no direct harmony outside of the drone that may be going on. Because of that, like every music, when you concentrate on one or two areas, that will enlarge in scope more than if you were spreading it out thinner. The things they do with rhythm are beyond the comprehension of anybody west of the Ghanges River.
June: It is amazing.
Dave: When you get to the south of India, the rhythm really gets deep. We did see some of that on that Indian tour. But the thing that specifically was instructive has to do with singing- because I’m a saxophone player. I play one note at a time, and my job in the end, no matter what pyrotechnical stuff I do, no matter how many chords I play per second and all the technical stuff that I do, I am in the end, an extension of the voice. We are singers and we therefore are responsible to really understand what we mean by playing a melody. It sounds simple, but it’s not that easy
June: Yes.
Dave: It means that all the nuance and inflections and, let’s say “feeling” that you put into the notes is about making a lot out of a little. I mean, a raga is, if anything, five notes that you will hear being played the way they do it in India for maybe eight hours!! They don’t fool around-they take these five or six notes and they are going to extend it with variation. And it all comes from inflection, from little trills, vibrato, etc. In the case of the flute it’s how they use their air stream; if it’s the sitar, how they bend the note with their fingers. Each instrument has its own idiosyncratic stuff. That is really what I learned, an understanding of melodic interpretation beyond the Western way that we have through classical music like Puccini and the popular singers like Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn. It is in the final result the Eastern way of looking at things. Within that there are differences….Japan is different, China’s different, they all have their little unique way of doing it. But I was really able to find other elements to put into my own playing in the sense of melody and of course, the rhythm. If there’s any music that is directly tied to spirituality, I don’t know a better example than Indian classical music.
June: I agree. My studies have shown the same. I’m actually studying with a Hindustani vocal instructor who has had a little bit of dealings with some jazz musicians, but was surprised to learn that not all jazz vocalists improvise.
Dave: Yes.
June: Because in their tradition, of course, it’s a big part of what they do. I’m making a lot of connections that way in terms of the similarities, but of course there are some differences. I come pretty heavily from an improvisational aspect of things. Of course, rhythmically there is so much they have to offer; the lines that they can concentrate on and retain -those rhythmic complexities are amazing. I’m also studying the ragas and a lot of the scales, the similarities between them and our modes in jazz and how we use them. Had you had any direct dealings with that? Did it affect you compositionally as well, would you say?
Dave: Well, you know, a lot of their stuff is microtonal.
June: Yes.
Dave: Which is, of course, of interest to you as a vocalist and to me as a horn payer, which is the extension of a vocalist. It certainly does not really fit the piano, which in the end is the source of Western music. But inflecting a note is part and parcel of what we do in jazz and that reservoir of expressive devices may have been affected through whatever absorption and study I did of Indian music, particularly in that ten year period. You know, with music, as you know, when you do it for twenty, thirty, forty years, whatever you do – water seeks its own level. It will get there – it may come in different appearances and in different periods, depending on what you’re involved with. But when it lands in your body-it becomes part of your physical being, which, in the case of a horn player is very important, because your voice is your body. My instrument comes directly out of my voice, and so forth. That stuff will manifest itself in some way.
June: Wonderful. I do appreciate that-yes. I understand. One last question: From the jazz instrumental perspective-in my research, I’ve found quite a bit of this new hybrid of jazz and Indian music going on with a lot of the younger players. Are you familiar with any of them, or have you had contact with say, Rudresh Mahanthappa?
Dave: Yes, Rudresh studied with me in the eighties and Vijay (Iyer), of course, I’ve seen him and heard his music. They are probably among the first jazz “Indo-Americans” (you know, like we say “African Americans”). They are of Indian descent and they bring a seemingly more direct aspect of that into their music but there are people who have done this before like Jan Garbarek, who is, of course, on ECM Records and very famous from Norway. He plays soprano and you get a vibe- it sounds like an Indian instrument. You must check out Jan Garbarek- he has a lot of records out. There are some where he absolutely throws down as far as an Indian influence is concerned. Indian music was the first on the map of the world musics to be widely known in the ’60’s and exerted a strong influence on several generations. Now, it seems everyone isinvolved in world music. In fact, I just put something up on facebook three days ago – I gave a concert at Oberlin….
June: Oh, I saw that -I wanted to check that out when time I had a moment. That looked great!
Dave: That instrument is a kora, Western African. The guy is American and has been studying the kora music. This thing of the combination of jazz influences with world music is now very topical and very hip and very on the spot.
June: Tell me about the tour you did of India in the 70s.
Dave: It was a state department tour-we did eight cities in two weeks going north, south, everywhere.From what I understood, we were the first “jazz” group to be there since Benny Goodman went in the fifties.
June: Wow!
Dave: I don’t know how true that was. Of course having a tabla player from Bangladesh where Badal was raised did stir up a hornet’s nest when for example we played Calcutta which at the time was ground zero for Indian music. You had people who loved it, and people who were detractors, obviously, but the reason I was doing it at that time was because it was on the plate and as I have alluded to there was an obvious spiritual element to the music. I mean, they do not fool around. When you hear the flute playing that raga – the twilight raga, or whatever they call it, whichever time of day it is-you can hear the spirits going at it.
June: Yes
Dave: I mean what ceremony the particular raga is attached to, which they all are. You’re just immediately transported into another realm. I mean, this music goes right to the center of the sh*t. When it gets into the rhythm, the intellectual aspect of what they’re doing, as you know is unbelievably complex. They make us look like babies in our 4/4 world. And no matter the instrument the musicians can sing everything. In their culture you do not learn an instrument until you can sing the basics.
June: There’s a saying that if it’s expressed over in India that you’re a musician, they ask you, “Oh, what style do you sing?” first -they just assume that before they ask you what your instrument is-
Dave: Yes.
June: ….because everybody comes from that background. Whereas here they ask you, “What do you play?” It’s such a different perspective.
Dave: Well put. They all have to sing. The drummers have to sing, and that’s a great thing, especially with the pitches that are produced by the tabla. I do a lecture about transcribing and how important it is. The real reason we transcribe besides getting the notes and the shadings and all the obvious stuff is to get the phrasing, the vibe and the way the guy played the notes. When I play my examples, the first thing I play for them is a lesson of one of my students in India playing shenai. He went to India and sought out a master. He went to live there with the family sittng in the master’s home six months at
a time playing three times a day. Of course, everybody else takes care of the business of life obviously, but the point is that in India, it is an oral tradition. The master plays aline, the guy has to sing it, and then he has to play it, and if he’s off, the guy goes back, and they do three notes for thirty minutes. That tradition is what you really hear in the music.
June: That’s amazing.
Dave: Yes.
June: Listen Dave, I want to thank you once again for your time- this is invaluable and your spirit in being willing to share with me is wonderful.
Dave: When you get something to send me, please let me hear it.
June: I certainly will. Thank you!
Dave: Take care.