The past decade has seen groups of crate-diggers re-evaluating a series of recordings made by some pivotal jazz musicians. Loosely termed ‘spiritual jazz’ this is essentially rooted in a period from the mid 60s to late 70s when a series of American musicians began incorporating tropes, ideas, and sounds from India into their work, resulting in some striking, challenging recordings.
But it wasn’t perfect. Aspects of colonial thought were rife, some aspects were highly tokenistic, and Indian musicians were largely, if not wholly, excluded from this rather one-sided conversation.
Born in India and now based in London, Sarathy Korwar finds himself in the unusual position of being both an advocate and critic of this period of music. “I’m a big spiritual jazz aficionado,” he tells Clash. “But always, the thing that made me very uncomfortable was the treatment of these Indian instruments. Especially back in the 70s. A lot of it was very tokenistic.”
“I really do love these songs but in the 21st century there’s a better way to re-balance the scales,” he insists. “There should be, anyway, a much deeper understanding of other cultures and how much depth there is to other music. I think in the 60s and the 70s a lot of jazz musicians looked East, just as an inspiration. They dug a little bit, took a couple of scales, and then came back and pretended to have understood a whole culture. And that in itself is very problematic.”
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There should be, anyway, a much deeper understanding of other cultures...
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This process of upending expectations, of allowing Indian musicians to control the narratives that surround their own culture and heritage, reached a new level last year, when Sarathy Korwar formed the UPAJ Collective, and performed at London’s Church Of Sound. An actual church located in Hackney, it has rightfully earned a reputation as a feverish laboratory for new ideas, a petri dish for fresh musical culture, and for simply being a fantastic night out.
“It’s such an incredible vibe, man!” he exclaims. “They’ve done an amazing job. It’s one of those things where, as a promoter, the ultimate compliment is that people are going to trust your programming without knowing who’s gonna play. It just sells out every time.”
“They wanted me to do a Church Of Sound gig for a while,” the composer continues. “We’d been talking about it for about a year almost. We just hadn’t got the timing right.”
“They wanted me to pick a songbook, but I kind of wanted to do something different. I wanted to have this kind of Indo-Jazz ensemble and work through multiple songbooks, if you will. That idea of picking composers who have been interested in Indian music, but also Indian composers who have become in their own right jazz musicians. So both ways, basically. That cross-cultural connection.”
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A team of incredible musicians who span multiple disciplines, the UPAJ Collective worked through pieces composed by Joe Henderson, Alice Coltrane, Shakti and more, while adding in elements of Ravi Shankar, and even a deep cut from 60s Bollywood. The perfect union of venue, audience, sound, and performers, the set exceeded Sarathy’s wildest expectations.
Even discussing it now, 12 months later, he simply exhales, pauses, and says: “Man, it was amazing. It was one of the best gigs we’ve done in London.”
Thankfully, Gearbox Records have stepped in to release the set in full, both digitally and on vinyl. Out now, ‘My East Is Your West’ is an incredible document, a release that will only gain in importance as time goes on, such is its ability to ignite debate and spark conversation.
“For me, having grown up in India as an Indian classical musician but then having also studied jazz, and been in the jazz world, I felt like in a way I was in an interesting vantage point where I could do this kind of gig. Where I could bring together people from both traditions of music, and try to do something more equal, more democratic.”
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I feel like in the age of very clinical, automated music we’ve come round again to very organic, communal music-making.
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The results are phenomenal. A lengthy, lucid, fantastically engrossing work, it truly delivers the ‘spiritual’ aspect of spiritual jazz. It’s part of a wider resurgence of interest in the term, but Sarathy Korwar has a bold, clearheaded approach to any such revivalism.
“I think if it was that good it would never have gone away,” he laughs. “Everything moves in cycles, doesn’t it? I feel like in the age of very clinical, automated music we’ve come round again to very organic, communal music-making. Trying to understand everyday rituals, trying to understand how other cultures make music.”
“I think spiritual jazz, in a sense, the intention was to look beyond just your very obvious be bop and try to understand different cultures and how they make music, and then taking inspiration from other places. That’s what informed a lot of spiritual jazz in the 60s and 70s,” he insists. “It’s just that the manner people went about it was very post-colonial and Western-centric, in a way. Just going and seeing a little bit of Africa and saying, oh they’re so deep down there in Africa! And the same with India.”
“It’s come as a reaction to maybe the 2000s and how to jazz has also progressed,” he muses. “I think it’s come as a reaction to very individualistic music, if you will. It’s come back to larger groups, that idea of community, it’s come back to playing imperfectly, it’s come back to more organic music.”
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Out now, the performance is part of an ongoing blast of creativity from Sarathy’s world. He recently flew back to India, working with a number of rap crews from across the country on a project that should see the light of day next year. In contrast to spiritual jazz – which viewed India as a fixed entity, those points of reference drawn from the past – Sarathy’s work grapples with the future-fixated, ultra-modern moments of creative flux bursting out all over the sub-continent.
“You just have to go to India and spend some time there to realise this,” he points out. “People are defining music on their own terms, people are making music on their own terms. There isn’t really this shadow of the West that looms over musicians there. I think it’s a really exciting time, basically. Not just India, I’m sure it’s happening across the developing world, those musicians have the same access to technology and the same access to music, and they’re really defining their own voice.”
“It’s a more complex narrative for people to understand here,” he continues. “Which is why it’s important to put it out there, and for it to be released here because then you realise there’s no one brown voice, there’s no one South Asian voice - there’s multiple narratives that unfold from just being within such a large population in India, and also such a big diasporic population… which is a totally different life. It’s a different history.”
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You realise there’s no one brown voice, there’s no one South Asian voice - there’s multiple narratives that unfold...
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One recurring aspect of Sarathy Korwar’s work is that notion of community, and it’s something he’s found in London. The supportive network that evolved from Church Of Sound – and Total Refreshment Centre – has joined with other collection actions across the city to forge a vibrant, multi-faceted, youthful, and incredibly modern jazz scene.
“I think there’s a real sense of not just growing up together but listening to each other, and being informed by each other’s playing,” he says. “Predominantly now I listen to my peers and what they’re playing, but it hasn’t always been that way. I used to listen to music from back in the day, and I still do but a large chunk of what I listen to today is being made right here in London today. And that’s informing my sense of music as well.”
Ultimately, Sarathy Korwar’s work is about connections – linking the history of spiritual jazz to the present, linking compositional ideas from modern jazz to the depth of culture Indian classical music offers. The fact that it can happen right here – in the UK, in London – is testament to the positive forces at work in this city. It’s a conversation we should cherish.
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