New York saxophonist and konnakol artist Arun Luthra spoke to Charlie Anderson about his blending of jazz and South Indian music.
Tell us about your background and how you got into jazz.
I’m the child of an Indian father and a British mother. I was born in the U.S. and raised in both Europe and the U.S. I have the good fortune of having been raised in an artistic family: My father, Yugal Luthra, was a toxicologist as well as an amateur tabla player and abstract painter. The recordings of Indian classical music and of Sufi devotional music, known as ghazals, which he listened to daily inspired my love for, and interest in, Indian music, especially Indian classical music rhythms.
My mother, Lisa Luthra, is a retired early childhood educator in California who studied painting, sculpture, and dance, and still paints and sings in a choir, and is an avid appreciator of all things music and visual arts. During my childhood, her favourite recordings of everything from opera and European classical music to the soundtracks to The Graduate and Saturday Night Fever to Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, and George Brassens made a deep impression on my musical development.
My first formal music training was on classical guitar as a child in Belgium. I wanted to play guitar to emulate my brother, who was a teenager when I was born, and who played the hit songs of the day at home – B.B. King, The Allman Brothers, Mountain, Simon & Garfunkel, Eric Clapton, et al. I began studying saxophone after moving back to the States and joining my school’s concert and jazz bands.
I was first exposed to jazz through my parents’ recordings. I particularly remember Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and his Greatest Hits, as well as a Louis Armstrong compilation. In my teenage years in the States my love of jazz was cemented by having a music teacher at school who introduced me to Sonny Rollins (I immediately went out and bought the album Tenor Madness), and by the incredible array of jazz that was broadcast on New York City’s public television station WNET Channel 13. I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s 70th birthday concert at Wolf Trap, Stan Getz live in Antibes, documentaries on John Coltrane, on Miles Davis, and a weekly jazz programme called Jazz Tonight which showed concerts in New York clubs like The Village Gate as well as great documentaries, including a wonderful one presented by Carmen McRae and Marian McPartland on women in jazz.
I was playing many instruments (saxophone, flute, clarinet, electric bass, drums, etc.) and many types of music in my late teens. I also believed I was going to be a theoretical physicist and join Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and their colleagues in their search for the theory that would finally reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics. But after a year of studying physics at university I realised that I had no choice but to devote my life to music, and especially jazz. Since then I have endeavoured to follow in the footsteps of my heroes and mentors – Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Billy Harper, Reggie Workman, Charli Persip, Joanne Brackeen, George Garzone, et al.
For the last 15 years or so I have also devoted myself to the study of konnakol, the Carnatic (South Indian classical) music art form of vocalising rhythms, which I first fell in love with hearing my father’s records. My blending of these rhythms with jazz is an expression of my multicultural and multinational identity as an Indo-Anglo-Euro-American (for lack of a better term) jazz musician.
Tell us about konnakol and how it works.
Konnakol is a discipline and art form in Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. It is a centuries-old art form which originally developed as a teaching and learning device for percussionists. Different syllables (“Tha”, “Thom”, “Ka”, etc.) are used to represent the different ways of striking the mridangam (Carnatic music’s main percussion instrument) – with the index finger, with all four fingers, with the left or left hand, etc. The guru “sings” rhythmic lessons and the disciple repeats them before eventually playing them on her/his instrument. This practice eventually evolved into an art form and performance discipline in itself, such that rhythms are performed vocally without a percussion instrument.
Carnatic music’s rhythmic tradition, practice, and vernacular are astoundingly profound and vast. Studying konnakol allows the practitioner to learn and perform these rhythms, as well as apply these rhythmic concepts to any music. As I am a saxophonist, this has the particular benefit of allowing me to learn and perform Carnatic music rhythms without having to spend a lifetime mastering yet another instrument. Additionally, through konnakol I have internalised Carnatic music’s rhythmic practice and vernacular. As far as I know, I am the only musician who is established as both a saxophonist and a konnakol artist, and who makes konnakol an integral part of her/his jazz performances and compositions.
Tell us about the music you will be playing with your Konnakol Jazz Project at The Verdict on Friday 23rd August.
Arun Luthra’s Konnakol Jazz Project’s personnel will be Arun Luthra – tenor & soprano saxophones, konnakol; Sam Leak – piano; Tom Mason – bass; David Ingamells – drums.
We will principally be performing my compositions which blend jazz with konnakol. This includes pieces in which I recite konnakol, in which I trade konnakol phrases with the drummer, and in which konnakol rhythms are the basis for the composed material. We will also have in our repertoire music which I wrote during my composer’s residency at Flushing Town Hall, a historic jazz venue in the New York City borough of Queens, which celebrates the remarkable jazz history of Queens and the iconic musicians who called it home, among them Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Mal Waldron, John Coltrane, and many others. I have also been composing music which is inspired by Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, taking the raw musical materials of the piece (its scales and harmonies) and creating new music with these within the vernacular and practice of African-American music as well as Carnatic music rhythms. There are also a few choice ballads which are rarely played and which I love to perform – but I won’t spoil the surprise by naming them!
Arun Luthra’s Konnakol Jazz Project
The Verdict, Brighton
Friday 23rd August, 2019