The Shisha cafe jazz fest-a two day music festival featuring some of India’s most accomplished jazz/world music artistes.
Jazz in Pune has seen a sea-change during the last half decade or less. Indian jazz artistes were traditionally scoffed at rather like tribals in hinterland wearing suits, shaking hands and speaking in a peculiar brand of English, by the gentry. However, Shisha Cafe, in my opinion seconded by Sohrab Chinoy the owner of ABC Farms Complex which houses all such cafes, has done a lot in pushing Jazz from near anonymity of dim-lit bars and restaurant corners into the limelight of international exposure. The 2-day Shisha Jazz Fest 2008, on 7th & 8th August was one more landmark indeed.
Professional jazz performers used to shrink on sight of a few tables and hardly 100+ seats, a bottleneck situation very resourcefully resolved by adding as many seats downstairs with a huge screen on to which a video camera with CCTV gear projects the proceedings. The roof has been extended so the incessant rain does not interfere. Thus, more than 250 jazz lovers converged at the site, eager faces with an unmistakable gleam in the eye -the gleam of anticipation. The electricians took a while and the first band arrived a little late so the show started half an hour late, a minor crib that seemed pointless as soon as the first few notes on the piano rang out, whitewashing the gloom of silence.
The Tarique Hassan trio threw open the proceedings. He has played in Pune before, and one can’t easily forget this easy grace, aggressive piano hammering, and an impeccable fluency that comes only after years of slogging in the Western Classical idiom. Tarique is a pianist ensconced in the topmost category, there can be no doubt, and his piano solos tend to hog the limelight in a manner so natural such that the bassist and the drummer remain as solid accompanists not vying for their individual glory at all. The bassist Karl Peters is an aging rock-star with hundreds of rock concerts under his belt, and has perfected the art of non-interference when truly jazzy pieces such as John Coltrane numbers and in particular a Bill Evans melody, unfurled in all its jazz-splendored resplendence and glory. half way through the program.
Today’s bright and breezy generation of jazz artistes show mainly two streams, those who sneaked in through Rock and the others who earned their Western Classical plaudits before plunging into the wide and wild world of Jazz -which is ofen compared to the English language. No other language has been so accommodating, and outside influences such as Hindi words, only enrich it further. The latter produce a noticeably different tone and timbre from the same instruments that the former use in a very restricted sense, musically.
Tarique Hassan’s one hour of glory with increasing applause from an audience seemingly comprised of old time jazz aficionados, Westerners, and the hard core addicts whose watering hole was turned into a jazz festival site for the evening. Adrienne on drum gave a good variation on drumming when it came to changing the rhythms to suit the mood of every composition that Tarique handled with the irrepressible gusto of a purebred maestro. Karl offered an occasional glimpse into the riches that a properly handled electric bass can provided, and aptly so at chosen moment. The trio departed to almost a standing ovation.
The second group Faces In The Dark, featuring the Bollywood stars of huge repute, Ehsaan and Loy, justified their name in a poetic manner. Individually the leaders are hugely talented but the group seemed to be hopelessly stuck in their early phases of musicl development which undoubtedly sounded pure Rock with not a trace of jazz at all. The drummer chose the heavy pounding beats that makes listeners get up and dance, and hardly any variation seemed to creep in though the numbers seemed to show a shade of Bossa Nova, a bit of Pat Metheny-like contemporary jazz, sometimes again the Carlos Santana touch -all packaged into sturdy Rock garbs. One anticipated jazz funk which came out as pure rock funk, and blues numbers which came out as high voltage screaming by a lady singer who would be better off singing Ann Murray or Judy Collins numbers.
Often our jazz bands play the blues without the hallmark of the blues i.e. a painsoaked voice, a bluesy ambience in a song -all set on a variety of rhythms that sound like the urban blues, Chicago blues or electric blues. Soft rock rhythms are dangerously close and sound un-blues like when the typical blues voice is missing. On the whole the group delighted the Rock aficionados a lot but left the jazzheads a tad disappointed. But the music remained very infectiously foot-tapping throughout, something the crowds want consistently. Slow ballads didn’t hit off. For jazz lovers the group will forever remain in their memory as Faces In The Dark.
On the whole, a good three hours of interesting music.
‘Jazz Junction’ the group led by Colin D’Cruz -one of the better electric bassists who has been religiously true to Jazz so far, kicked off the proceedings on the second day with this fabulous quintet. The keyboardist Tony Dias sounded exceptionally gifted, with his fingers literally flying over the keyboard with the facile ease of a consummate artist. The Saxophonist Simon Hewitt, a Westerner, played his alto sax with gusto and flair to match, and Colin took limited solos. On the whole, the group jelled and did so in a well-oiled manner. This was pure, unadulterated and unapologetic jazz that works like a soul-uplifter.
Natasha D’Souza with her husky and well-modulated voice sang Jazz tunes with an accomplished air and did not attempt any songs that may have stretched abilities or made her sound artificial. Somewhere in the middle of an inspired performance Colin allowed Pune’s own Simone, daughter of trumpeter Jehangir and Alto Saxophonist, Jasmine to take the floor. One wonders how matured and self-confident this little girl still in her teens, sounds. It is nothing short of a miracle. Admitted, she has been performing since she was a tiny child indeed, but the flair and panache that she displays, is often totally missing from singers who enter the arena with trepidation and are forced to enquire with the audience if it is still with them…Simone’s body language tells us everyone is with her.
Those uncertain singers should measure the babble level as a sure-shot indicator. During slow ballads, the babble rises sharply, I can’t help noticing. Nothing of the sort happened through three songs that Simone sang, including her very jazzy Route Sixty Six, a song popularized by the velvety voiced Nat ‘King’ Cole in 1960s–and in her last offering she was joined by Natasha, both made an interesting pair, even a complimentary pair.
The crowd seemed sorry to see them go, but the star attraction, The Southern Quartet was to follow, and follow they did with a huge bang that kept the audience spellbound for more than an hour. Electric violinist Holger Jetter is a genius with his tiny instrument that could use a synthesizer but he never uses one. Often his pure tones sound rather like L. Shankar’s whose electric violin is much larger and whose dependence on the electronic gizmos and special effects is the mainstay of each performance. Holger sounds like he has definitely been listening with rapt attention to the violin maestros down south, e.g. Lalgudi Jayraman Iyer, Kannaikudi Vaidyanathan et al, and has absorbed the best out of those styles.
The Southern Jazz Quartet, Holger told us takes its name as most of the musicians are from Pondicherry, a stronghold of European Jazz. There was a brilliant tenor saxophonist, Maarten Wessels whose sound at times seemed like an echo of Holger’s wild range of screeches and caressing whispers that he produces from his tiny violin like a true maestro. I had seen him perform at Shisha Cafe nearly two years ago and it was a windfall to see him in action with his own group now. There was Keith on electric bass, who kept a respectful distance whilst the sounds of electric violin and tenor sax sort of played love games that seemed both an aural and visual delight. The brief solos that Keith flashed now and then showed he’s been on stage for decades, with an enviable flow in his soft rhythms and improvisation.
The quartet didn’t have a keyboardist, but the general brilliance of their totally arresting improvisations and flashy use of chords, and a tendency to build up almost an orgasmic climax slowly and surely towards the end of every tune, left the audience gasping for more. There were a couple of inspired solos on the drums too, by Jeoraj, a young drummer not seen here before, and he gave a good account of himself which made Holger and Maarten tempted to plunge in at calculated pauses –on the whole the jazz quartet played some standards and their own compositions with a sense of authority and the leading duo handled their instruments as if these were extensions of their physical being. All told, an amazing performance.
Congratulations to Shisha Café for having arranged such a wonderful jazz festival with very interesting performers. One hopes more such events enrich the Pune evenings in times to come.
By Max Babi