India has influenced the West Very Softly: Saxophonist George Brooks

Saxophonist George Brooks has built bridges with India through his music which is primarily a beautiful combination of jazz and Indian classical music and through his collaborations with Indian musicians. He says that India has influenced the West and “in some ways so softly that many times people don’t understand the connect with India. Most English speakers don't understand that we have Sanskrit roots in our language,” he told CSP in an interview recently.

He is the founder of Indian fusion groups Summit with Zakir Hussain, Steve Smith, Kai Eckhardt and Fareed Haque; Bombay Jazz with Larry Coryell and Ronu Majumdar; the Raga Bop Trio with Steve Smith and Carnatic guitarist Prasanna and Elements with Indian violinist Kala Ramnath and Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentink.

Brooks says his first introduction to Indian culture was through music. The first time he heard Indian music was that of Sitar exponent Pandit Ravi Shankar when he played with the Beatles in the late 60s or 70s. George Harrison had done a charity concert in Bangladesh and Ravi Shankar played at that concert. “I had that album and I just remember that when Ravi Shankar’s part would come on I didn't really understand it, I wasn't quite sure what was going on. That was probably when I first heard it, but I didn't establish a relationship with it at that point. I mean I heard the exotic sounds in some of the Beatles stuff, but didn't recognize it as Indian,” says Brooks.

Brooks with his guru Pandit Pran Nath

Brooks started playing jazz when in high school. Growing up outside of New York city, he says that he was able to sneak into jazz clubs. Brooks began his study of jazz with Count Basie saxophonist, Frank Foster and continued at the New England Conservatory of Music, with George Russell, Joe Allard and Jaki Byard. On a whim, he says, he took a course called - Survey of Indian Classical Music, “and that was when the light bulb went off and I started listening to Indian music.”

The course was being taught by an American Sitar player Peter Row who was married to an Indian at that time and a practitioner of Hindustani music. Peter had spent extensive time in Kolkata, where he attended Don Bosco High School and studied sitar for many years with the distinguished Gokul Nag of the Vishnupur gharana.  He later obtained the Bachelor of Music, Master of Music, and Doctor of Music (Sangitacharya), from the Prayag Sangit Samiti in Allahabad.

A fixture of the Boston classical music scene, Row also served as Dean and Provost at the New England Conservatory while teaching courses in the music of India and world music.

Brooks says that Row would come to the conservatory “wearing a chaddhar and smoking beedi and had adopted many Indian mannerisms.” He was teaching the students Sargam (singing the notes instead of the lyrics) and the students were given listening assignments.  

Brooks says he was listening primarily and almost exclusively to Hindustani music at that time.  The Dagar brothers, Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan, V G Jog, Pandit Ram Narayan were a great attraction to him. “This really older generation and especially the Dagar brothers was the kind of music to which I was very attracted to - Dhrupad music and this kind of singing. I started trying to figure out what about this music could I express through my instrument, even though I wasn't having any kind of taleem at that point.”

Brooks says his teachers at the conservatory didn’t really like his experiments as they didn’t have any relationship with Indian music, except for Peter Row who was teaching the course.  

In the same year, Brook met his wife Emily who was involved in the mystical teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, the ‘Sufi who brought Sufism to the West’. When she moved to California to study at Mills College, a nationally renowned liberal arts women's college, he joined her. That is where he met his guru Pandit Pran Nath as well as his guru's senior disciple American pianist and composer Terry Riley. After Emily, his wife, graduated from school she received a Watson fellowship to study in India, and Brooks followed her.

“This was my real introduction to Indian culture. Before we went to India we studied Hindi. I learned to speak and also read some Devanagari. When we arrived in Delhi it was a totally mind blowing experience. Communication wise, there were certainly no cell phones, no computers and there wasn't even much in the way of landlines. So if you wanted to visit somebody, you went to their house and hoped they would be home. If you wanted to go somewhere you'd have to go to the train station a day before and stand in a queue for three hours to get a ticket and then come back the next day... and for people like us to hope that we got on the right train. So that's where I really got to know Pandit Pran Nath and learned to do Guru seva and give him massages and cook and just do all the things that a student would do in order to receive the knowledge.”

As to the teacher-student relationship, Brooks says there are teachers in the West who are very serious mentors and take students under their wing and “somebody might be considered the protege of a particular individual but it is not quite the same as a Guru. We don't have the ‘Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu concept. In America everybody's got the feeling they are ‘independent’. It's about ‘I did this on my own’ and that's it. Whereas in India, it's like I couldn't have done this without the blessings of my Guru and Bhagwan. I think that's kind of  different. Nobody wants to be subservient to anybody here.”

So, the Guru-Shishya relationship was very special to Brooks. “It just brought a different world view. It helped me see the world in a different way.” His guru stayed in Kailash Colony in New Delhi and so the Brooks lived in Nizammudin and at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. “We had a lot of different types of experiences.  We actually lived at the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan, for several months. We traveled a lot in those days, we went to Rajasthan and saw so many parts of India that I guess your average tourist doesn't see.”

Brooks, John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain and Louis Banks

On his return to the US, Brooks met Sitar exponent Krishna Mohan Bhatt, a relative of Grammy winner Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Krishna Mohan Bhat lived in Berkeley in California. “We became very close in the 1980s and Krishna, Terry Riley and myself started touring together. Northern California, which is where I settled, was the Center for Indian classical music in the US. It was where Ali Akbar Khan had his scholarship, Pandit Pran Nath was teaching here, Zakir Hussain was part of the Ali Akbar college and was living here. Through Krishna I met Zakir Hussain.”   

Brooks was playing with Blues artists, writing music and playing with some students from the Ali Akbar College, but it wasn’t till 1996 that his first recording was released by Ustad Zakir Hussain on Moment Records. It was a collaboration between Brooks, Krishna Bhatt, Zakir Hussain and some Western musicians. “I would have to say, because I was performing with Zakir and because he was presenting my music that gave me a great deal of visibility in the Indian classical world. As I kept writing music in this realm I never felt like it was right for me to say I’m a Jazz musician or an Indian classical musician. I don't think I'm either of those things. I study Indian classical music, I study Western jazz and I write music that hopefully expresses how those elements have kind of grown inside of me.” 

Brooks with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia

Working with Zakir opened the world to Sultan Khan Saab, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and then later to Carnatic musicians like Ganesh-Kumaresh, Shivamani and Flute Sashank and then much later to Suma Sudindhra, Chitravina N Ravikiran. Brooks says it kept unfolding - Kala Ramnath, Ronu Majumdar, Purbayan Chaterjee, Niladri Kumar and so many others. 

Of course these international collaborations did not always go down well with traditionalists in the classical world of Indian music. “Well it's interesting. I mean people are really eager to criticize. My Guru ji used to say, if you made a painting and put it out in the village and said please comment, everybody would say the sky should be a different blue, the tree should be a different green. But if you put up a blank canvas and said please create, it would stay blank.”

Brooks says that Indian musicians played classical music but tried to find new ways to collaborate and create. “Ravi ji played incredibly serious classical music, as did Ali Akbar Khan Saab, but they also looked for ways to relate to the people listening to them. If Ravi ji met Yehudi Menuhin, a brilliant classical violinist, and they wanted to find some way to have a conversation, to have a simple shared experience, somebody like Yehudi Menuhin is not going to be able to sit for 15 years to learn the intricacies of Ragas to have that conversation. So they have to find common ground somewhere in the middle, where they can meet.”

Brooks says that historically in most of the East-West collaborations, Western musicians have moved more towards the Indian side, mainly because “Indian instruments are crafted to play within a Raga system. They are not created to move through harmonic motion, the way let's say a piano was actually invented and developed over the decades and centuries to be able to move through the keys. Indian instruments are crafted to explore the subtleties of one mode of the relationship. The sitar has meends - the slides and spaces between the notes. Western instruments can't do that at all, certainly a piano cannot, the saxophone has some ability and the violin has total freedom to do that which is why it's been so well adapted to the Indian classical world.” Brooks says if musicians want to come together and explore new territory, then there has to be a kind of accommodation on both sides.

Over the years, the recording industry has grown by leaps and bounds. There are today several platforms streaming live music and recorded music and the seeds for this were laid in the 1980s. The first time Brooks heard Indian music it was because of the many albums recorded at that time. Zakir Hussain would talk to him about the times when his father Alla Rakha Khan Saab would come back from his tours with a recording of My Fair Lady or a show tune or Buddy Rich playing jazz, and Zakir grew up hearing these records.

Of course Brooks mentions the now ubiquitous Youtube where everything is available to everyone, all the time. “But sometimes it is hard to find the gems. The industry can also be problematic in that it pushes, sometimes, what you might consider the lowest common denominator music that will appeal to everyone, or which they think will appeal to the largest number of people that they presume they can make the most money from.” He adds that most people out there are not going to listen to Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, but they may hear A R Rehman’s Jai Ho, from the hit movie. “The industry has the risk of obscuring important artists who are less popular while promoting those who might have more mass appeal,” he observes.

Classical music requires rigorous training, and one has to be super focused to get to that level of proficiency, says Brooks. “I see incredibly brilliant musicians coming from all parts of the world, evolving as very mature musicians in a variety of cultures, not always the culture that they were brought up in. I think a brilliant inquisitive mind is going to adjust to the amount of information coming in and make something special. I believe in  the ability of the artistic spirit and human ingenuity.”

 The power of the Human Voice

The human voice has been the most sought after sound in most forms of music. In Indian music it is known as the Gayaki style. Brooks says a lot of the underpinnings of Western jazz are also songs that have been explored by jazz instrumentalists. “Most of those great jazz instrumentalists have also become composers and they've written their own instrumental music, so we have what's referred to as the great American Songbook. These are songs from the 20th century, from the 1950s which have evolved into a different kind of pop music and worked their way into jazz.  Jazz instrumentals and people like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker (nicknamed ‘Bird’ and ‘Yardbird’, was an American jazz saxophonist, bandleader and composer) were our inspirations. I listened to the vocalists because they have maybe the strongest ability to communicate emotion and to really touch our hearts. There's nothing quite like the human voice, saxophone is second (smiles).”

He also listened to “Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar. I listened to these vocalists to hear what they do, but also to somebody like Hariprasad Chaurasia to see what the wind instrument creates.”

All of these influences come together in the trio called Elements which represents a new standard in global chamber music, combining the unique talents of American Brooks with violinist and vocalist Kala Ramnath and Dutch harp virtuoso Gwyneth Wentink bringing together Western classical, Indian classical and American Jazz music.  

Gwyneth Wentink is a harpist from the Netherlands and was introduced as a teenager to Indian classical music, learning from Hariprasad Chaurasia when he was teaching an Indian classical music programme at Rotterdam. In 2004, they performed  together with Hariprasad in New York City. “Elements was an exciting project for me because you have Kala, who is an Indian classical musician and doesn't read notation and then there’s Gwyneth who came up in a strictly Western classical scene where everything is written, so I had to be this bridge between these different worlds.”

With the Element Trio, Brooks has composed ‘Karuna’ which is a tribute to Karuna, a student of Pandit Pran Nath.  She was a musical and sort of spiritual leader at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi and Emily, Brook’s wife, had come to India to study with her. “We became very close and on her first trip to America, she stayed in our home and we stayed very close to her until she passed away two to three years ago. This is a tribute to her. It's based essentially in Raag Yaman or Kalyani depending on where you're from and the opening notes are so heart wrenching.”

Just before Covid happened, Brooks was introduced to Utsav Lal, a Raga pianist, raised in Delhi and then Ireland. He went to the conservatory in Scotland and then nearly 40 years after Brooks went to the New England conservatory and got to know Peter Row, the same teacher who introduced Indian classical music to Brooks. 

“Although a pianist, he studied with Wasifuddin Dagar, one of the Dagar brothers of Dhrupad music. I worked with him in one of the last concerts before the Covid shelter began. He lives in Brooklyn, 3000 miles from where I live in Berkeley, but we were able to put a couple of video compositions together, through the internet and one of them was Karuna. Then we just followed it up with another called Silver Lining, based on Asaveri Raga,” says Brooks.

George Brooks says that the biggest learning for him in all these collaborations was developing a personal relationship with the people he was collaborating with. “It's not enough to look at the culture, either the West or East. Look in either direction, you don't want to look from outside and cherry pick something and go ‘Oh, I like that’. You don't want to use these things indiscriminately. The thing, I think, that's given me the most pleasure and maybe has given me strength in what I do, has come from my relationships with the artists themselves. As I mentioned, Krishna Bhat  was a very, very close friend or even my relationship with my guru ji was very special.”

For Brooks, relationships have been about “understanding who his fellow musicians are, and from that understanding how they view the musical world. What is it about their culture that makes their music the way it is, what is the music used for in their lives, how do they relate to it, who was their guru, who is their guru's guru, those kinds of things.”

One of those relationships was with Ustad Zakir Hussain. He had a chance to work closely with him in several recording sessions, watch how he worked in the studio, and observe the kind of serious attention he brought to his craft. He narrates a special occasion with the famous Indian tabla player. “Onstage and watching him do his soundcheck, you get to know how he relates to his instrument, how he brings himself into that performance space. There were these special events, which he conducts every year as a memorial concert for his father.  I've performed quite a lot of those. Usually in the evening there's a jam session, where they bring musicians from different places, usually some western and Indian, fusion and classical.”

But that year, John McLaughlin was in India and had written a piece called Abbaji as a tribute to Alla Rakha Khan saab. For the first time Zakir Hussain had a  jazz or a non classical performance in the morning for the opening of the event. “You had John McLaughlin who was really one of the architects of East-West fusion and his band Shakt was one of those really groundbreaking seminal groups. So to perform with him, Louis Banks and Zahkir Bhai - all playing this reverential piece for Abbaji at six in the morning, with several thousand people in attendance, all in a kind of a reverential mood, was a very special moment.”