Interview mit Trilok Gurtu


(C) Madhur Schroff

Christophe Schweizer: You have been in the business for many years. How do you view the changes it’s been going through?

Trilok Gurtu: I feel that musicians should speak their mind more, everywhere around the world, but especially in Germany. The problem is that if you do, and this is the way it’s been, you will not get a gig. Nowadays, the business is organized around certain clans of labels, agents, and managements, which is why you always see the same circle of artists appearing everywhere. 

CS: As far as the artistic side of it – isn’t part of it a question of esthetics associated with different countries? For example Aka Moon – they are one of the best bands in the world as far as I’m concerned, and they are huge in Belgium / France, but after 25 years of playing, they are virtually unknown in Germany. Are you familiar with their music, their common roots with Steve Coleman?

TG: Steve Coleman knows about India. In the 80s, we had a group called family of percussion (Peter Giger). Doug Hammond was in it, and we had all this Indian music going, and Steve Coleman started using him, and also my guitar player, David Gilmore, started playing with him, so I’m sure that’s how he found out about the Indian concepts. Same with the drummer of Aka Moon (CS: Stéphane Galland): he studied in South India, so he knew. So the whole thing, if these people have it, why, in Germany, nobody gives a damn about that? It’s still foreign here. But after so long, when every other country has developed, why is still like this here?

It’s the same thing as with the culinary problem – they were very late. Only now it’s started because of the TV. Cooking is also a great art, and it used to be associated with everything francophile. I don’t like French food personally, I prefer great the cooks of Italy, and there was a time when it was hard to find ginger, or even garlic was taboo. Now you see all these Michelin stars doing the Japanese mix and all that – you never heard of it then. It’s the same thing with music: They are not bold enough. The cooks did it. The Winemakers did it. The musicians didn’t. It’s an educational problem.

CS: You were the first drummer to come into “Jazz” from India, and your example is hard to follow. Are you familiar with some of the drummers today who have developed playing concepts around the Indian tradition, like e.g. Dan Weiss?

TG: Oh yeah, I saw him at the NDR! He got very excited when he realized I was there and started playing all this Indian stuff. The musicians who have been playing with me, they are educated now! You will see. I used to hammer it into their heads: no clichés, no quoting, no overplaying, no Bebop licks, don’t play unnecessary things besides the point . Hammered, hammered. Someone mutters, “it`s tough to play with you”, I say, sorry, you did like that, I’m not going to allow you to Americanize my music. I tell them that. Leave it where it is coming from.

CS: Where do you see yourself in terms of musical lineage? I transcribed the songs from “Broken Rhythms” years ago, and something that intrigues me is that you seem to have discovered a way of using Indian concepts in a very intelligently concentrated form. Did you consciously adapt them to the environment of jazz-related music?

TG: You see, this is how I was brought up. And after doing all those Jazz standards, I ended up enjoying Monk a lot. He has the same way of putting music very subtly, moving things around, and the harmony, also very subtle, but quite tricky. We did a lot of it with Don Cherry. I had a very good piano player – people had a tough time playing with us – Daniel Goyone, and we used to start playing -  you know, see, the Tihai and all these things, Americans didn’t know that, the (rhythmical) dislodging. In India, it’s very normal, in Africa it’s normal. Nobody spoke about it (here). So I thought about ways to keep the dislodging of the beat simple. I learnt from doing it that the audience should not be tortured. They should not try to figure out everything. So the musicians would say, “your music sounds so easy to play”, but when they come to play, it was tough! Because it is doing something they are not used to. Even Joe Zawinul - “Warum?” -  I learnt from a very good Mirdangam player. He said: “Whatever you do, make it simple”. The difficult part is simple. The simple part is difficult. Both ways. And then I started putting together these things which I knew and which I liked.

The thing is, you have to know all about the function of the bass, which is being lost nowadays. The function of the instrument, the function of harmony – not like, overdoing, not overplaying anything. That’s what I started to put together - the harmony onto whatever knowledge I had. And Daniel had very good charts – “why don’t we put this thing, this chord that Monk is doing there, check that out, oh, wow, wow!” – and that’s how we got “Tillana” (Album: Crazy Saints, 1993). People would try to transcribe – it’s tempting. Joe (Zawinul, also on Crazy Saints) said, “I can play it”. After one week he says “No”.

It’s not that easy.  “Who wrote this?” – and I said, “A saint” (the album title is “Crazy Saints”). So these things grew, and then you get a style. And then you get labeled. All they can say, “Oh, Trilok’s  - or somebody’s – music is difficult” – even when it’s not. It’s not difficult, only when you have to understand, when you can’t take it for granted, that’s all. I never take anybody’s music for granted. I watch it, then I analyze it, ok, I can do this, I can do that. Even when I play with Jan (Garbarek), I always see what I can do, and I give my suggestions.  – The thing is, it takes time to grow (talking about a musician who had difficulty at first playing with Trilok’s concepts) – look at him, he moved away, but he is still playing my music with the guys there, now he is playing “Tillana” right! He got it!

CS: You come from India-

TG: And Africa, a lot! And of course the harmony. And the the bass is also African, or coming from very good old style Funk, Rock, Pop – but not Jazz bass, I don’t use that.

CS: How do you view the difference?

TG: Jazz bass is the same on all the tunes! I met Danilo Perez, he came to hear my band in Boston. He said, “Trilok, how do you hear Jazz?” I just said, “Everything sounds like “Autumn Leaves”. And that became a big joke between him and Patitucci, “Yeah, he’s right!” – Check the bass and drums, the bass is always the same – OK the changes are not – like, dum dum dum – Bach!. That means, the song changes, the bass and drums don’t.  – Why? – OK, they might play something different in the beginning, but when it comes to soloing…why? That’s the problem I had with Jazz: that they had to keep it in a certain way, so somebody could solo. That’s why I prefer Monk –

CS: - every one of his compositions has a character you can’t get away without even in the solo sections –

TG: - exactly! Also, listening to Charlie Parker, he would say something in the (short) timespan had to solo. He didn’t need so many bars. I prefer that. This is my inspiration. Using things that Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal did.

CS: - I see. The great composers, like also Wayne Shorter and a few others who knew how to write a song that would always be identifiable even when it was being improvised on.

TG: That’s where I prefer Funk or Rock – when the song changes, the attitude of the whole band should change. (in Jazz) They are busier keeping time, dealing with the harmony – it gets very mental for my taste. Of course there is a very high level of artistry, also with all the new ways of playing today, very tricky and all. The same country, the guys that spoke about swing, about groove – it’s gone!

“Oh man, he doesn’t swing” – I didn’t understand when they said that when I came to America. That’s why I left. I found it very arrogant, what they were saying about other people. They were full of themselves, and they are still. I was in New York, I got rejected from Berklee. If I ask people who are talking about Jazz, “What is Jazz for you?” – “I don’t know.” – Then why are they talking about Jazz? It’s music! You are giving more importance to the name than to the substance. What is Jazz? Borrowed! Bass line: Bach. Harmony: Bach. Rhythm: Africa. Improvisation? Indians did it long before any of this happened!

After speaking to a lot of people: It came from Klezmer. The Jewish and the Africans jammed together at night. That’s what all my friends were saying. (Sings triplet rhythm) – all that started there. They were the low class, working. Look at the Instruments: Bass – Piano – Guitar – all European. OK, they developed it. But don’t forget the substance. That’s why—

CS: Isn’t a part of the problem that it’s become so codified, all based on what was developed over a short period of time in the 50`s through the 70`s – Weather Report –

TG: - Listen to Sly and the Family Stone, that one white drummer playing in there, amazing (Greg Errico? Toured with Weather Report in 1973)

CS: You were brought up in India, and you mentioned a Mirdangam player talking about simplicity in a musical context which at least to most non-Indians is highly complex. You moved to parts of the world where barely any one understood the concepts behind that music, which are not something you learn in short amount of time but which require a long period of study. What was that like for you? To put it very bluntly - was there something missing?

TG: I thought something was missing in me! When I came here, it was very fashionable in the West to understand the values of my own country, my own tradition.  This is how I really got shocked in America, because I wanted to study arrangement with Don Sebesky in Berklee. I enjoy every kind of music. Nobody in the West knew that I played Tabla – in India, some people knew, because of my mother and my whole family – and then I found out, oh man, I’ll always be a second class citizen, watch out! Because the way the Americans were talking to me – “I’ll check you out”, or “this Indian doesn’t swing, man….” – all these people…and I said, God, but, if I listen to my master, if I listen to the Mridangam, Thavil……..Jazz is not even metronomic. Pop is. Indian music is, African music is. That’s why people are keeping Tal – it’s metronomic in the sense for the audience to understand where you are, not to show right or wrong. The down beat is very important in India – in Africa, not that much. In Jazz also, the down beat is very important -

CS: - I once read that Dizzy used to say the 4th beat (in 4/4) was the most important –

TG: - that’s later! Like, you have to understand where the root is before you put the harmony. So you know the down beat is where we’re all together. This is the foundation of a group, of music! You can’t write everything up (sings off-beat rhythm). Of course you can do it, but where is the down beat?  - If you are writing it in 4/4. So some people would say, “oh, but you know….” – hopeless arguments.”…..Always all mathematics….”  I said, “Mathematic?” – You know, I opened my mouth later.

I really started understanding when I DID everything, after playing with John (McLaughlin), doing my own stuff: Why do I tolerate this stupidity? Why? Because somebody is giving me a gig? Because I`m afraid?

I said, “When you write music, what do you do? When you read, what do you do? You are dealing with values! How do you write a triplet? (sings) You have to know the mathematical value. So you are the one that’s creating the mess. Without mathematics, you won’t be able to write music. What are you going to write? You want a paradiddle, and you can’t write it. 4/4, work on that!” And this goes on with the guy who writes 1234123…ok, why? And they write metronomically, but they don’t play metronomically. So why are you writing in seven and you are not keeping it? Some people can’t even walk, and they want to run. That’s why I said, “you don’t understand my tradition, the downbeat is important”. Jazz, man. Anything easy, they don’t want. Anything difficult, nobody understands it, and that’s their advantage. That’s my take on that.

CS: Let’s go back to the question of acceptance. You collaborated with Don Cherry. Is this something that went on for a long time?

TG: Oh yeah, it started in Italy, and we shared a lot, till he passed. And this guy really knew. He knew a lot about India, about Africa, and he used it in his music. We used to play Monk with tabla, and do it with Raga.

CS: He must have known Monk personally.

TG: Monk was his mentor and teacher! And then we started understanding. He played Ornette’s music better than Ornette himself. I knew Ornette’s music completely, and how it was interpreted, it was so FUNKY! He broke it down, whack, took the parts, whoa – DON plays it properly! Honestly, Ornette would say, yes, Don did it. You should listen to one CD – Ornette with the piano player that used to play in the radio big band, Walter Norris. There is only one album with that combination. “Something Else!!!!” (1958), Ornette’s debut as a leader, with Cherry, Don Payne (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums)). Jan and me always talk about it, the compositions, and the way they play them – Wow, wow!

CS: Jan (Garbarek) is into that?

TG: Oh yeah, that’s part of our background. We don’t play like that, but we are inspired by it. I know a lot of music, Beethoven, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, we talk about him a lot. But I only use what I want to. Knowledge alone is not good. Horace, McCoy, Monk, Ahmad Jamal – they know about Africa, they know from where they are coming. They don’t say it, but you can hear it.

You can’t be superficial, like the guy who told me, “look, I played a twelve tone solo”. I said, “So what? – Just use three of these twelve. Can you play on three notes?”

People don’t know that I know all this. I did my homework. I used to study Bebop, and I’m using it in tabla. Look at my cassettes there – it’s all Bebop.

I used to play drums for Jack de Johnette, in the 70’s (Trilok has tapes of him playing drums with Jack on piano). I used to teach upstate New York (Karl Berger’s school), and Jack was also at the school.

CS: Do you like to teach?

TG: I don’t, no. But I like to do master classes. A teacher should teach his students to listen to music, to each other, to what each instrument is doing for what reason . You know who inspired me a lot? Bob Brookmeyer! He used to send me all this music, I have all these cassettes from him. “Twelve Balloons” the music was called. Free, open, but nice. Maria Schneider studied with him. And Mel Lewis was there, and I was there, and I said, “look, Bob, these are my compositions, Indian….”, and he said, “Trilok, this is fantastic. You should compose, man, compose, do your own band, because it’s not for you.“ I was at the WDR (Big Band) a lot in the 80s, when I used to live in Cologne. Bob was, Gil Evans…they were there. They would call me to just sit there till something needed to be figured out, percussion, drums, anything – “Trilok, can you do this, can you do that?” I could have got a steady position. And John (McLaughlin) used to take my compositions. So I got inspired – “if the top guys are asking me to do that…” – and I started to do my own music.

CS: How do you write?

TG: I sing! That comes from India. Whatever comes. Guys would say, “but, it’s wrong….” – “Play it!” – “Oh, it does sound right!”

I would like to share, that’s why I’m thinking about the master classes. 


To be continued...



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