Things come full circle… the Royal Academy of Music’s jazz department has invited sitar-player Jonathan Mayer to celebrate “Indo-Jazz Fusions”, the pioneering 1960s group which was co-led by Jonathan’s father, Calcutta-born composer John Mayer, and jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott.
The concert marks 70 years since the autumn of 1952, when John Mayer (1930-2004) came to England on a scholarship to study composition and violin at the Academy. He then worked professionally in London as an orchestral violinist for more than a decade, meanwhile developing an interest, as a composer, in finding common strands between jazz, classical music and the music of his country of birth. His contribution to music is unique. Interview with Jonathan Mayer by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: Should we think of Indo Jazz Fusions as a group… an album… or a movement?
Jonathan Mayer: I would say it started as a concept that formed a band that created albums and ended up creating a movement. Indo-Jazz Fusion (or simply Indo-Jazz) is now a genre and that all originates from Indo-Jazz Fusions, the band back in 1966
LJN: What would you say were the connecting threads that your father found between jazz, classical composition and Indian music?
JM: The strongest connecting thread between jazz and Indian music is improvisation. North Indian improvisation (my father looked at North Indian music not South Indian Carnatic which is very different) is very structured and when used with rhythm (tala) it takes the form of gat (composition) around a rhythmical cycle. This gat can be seen as the ‘head’ and as there is no harmony in Indian music they have to rely on rhythm and melody.
As my father studied Indian music he knew how he could incorporate Indian ragas (scales) and talas (rhythms) in a jazz idiom. He also knew he could incorporate his classical compositional style within Indo-Jazz Fusions and the best example of this is the piece ‘Overture’ where my father uses 3-part counterpoint.
LJN: What do you feel is his greatest and longest-lasting legacy to music?
JM: Three of my father’s pieces really stand out.
1. Dhammapada – EMI commissioned album telling the story of the spread of Buddhism through music, really is an amazing album with jazz, classical, Indian and Chinese influences;
2. Six Ragamalas for solo cello – This shows how my father was able to write for western instruments and make them sound Indian;
3. Violin Concerto no.2 – My father’s orchestral writing at its finest.
All these recordings are available on First Hand Records
LJN: You as a musician have a unique heritage. What led you to specialising on the sitar?
JM: I was always surrounded by music as a child although I must say that my parents saw music as a profession and so there were never sing-songs around the piano (thank God!). Instead, I was taken on tour and to concerts from a very early age and I was taught violin from my grandfather (on my mother’s side) and had piano lessons. I was also exposed to Indian music and by the age of 15 I had found my father’s Indo-Jazz LPs and a tape of Dhammapada and it was this recording that made me want to learn the sitar. We have family friends coming over from Kolkata and they picked up my first sitar from there and I started learning from Clem Alford, the sitarist in the Dhammapada recording.
More specifically on my heritage, I am half Indian and half English biologically and I play what I am, my compositions are influence by the two cultures (like my father) and when playing the sitar I look at influences outside of the Indian classical genre.
LJN: Did you ever do the George Harrison thing and go off and learn with a great master under a tree or by a fast-flowing river?
JM: Ha! No! Funniest thing about Indian music is the perception of it from the west. The whole hippy movement affected how people in the west listen to Indian music with joss sticks burning and tie dye being worn. However, Indians see it quite differently with taalim (training) and riyaz (practice) being very important and sometimes instilled quite forcefully. I studied from Clem Alford, Wajahat Khan and Pandit Subroto Roy Chowdhury all of whom had different approaches to teaching which shaped my playing style.
LJN: You revived the group in the 1990s with your father involved. What was the story there? Hadn’t the world around you changed quite a bit?
JM: In the late 1980s my father gained the position of composer in residence at Birmingham Conservatoire, and the students were extremely interested in his Indo-Jazz work. He formed a group which explored the compositions but there were no Indian musicians there at that time. By the time I arrived at the Conservatoire there were more and we were able to form the full band, which was approached by Nimbus Records to record a new take on the old band and include new pieces. In total we did four new albums and toured India, Sri Lanka & Bangladesh but when my father passed away in 2004 I just didn’t have the heart to carry on with the band. I did a concert of Dhammapada and Indo-Jazz materials a few years ago but nothing else since.
LJN: Tell LJN readers about the concert on 16 November and what you will be playing…
JM: 16 November will see the first time the full Indo-Jazz Fusions band has played since 2002. We will be playing my father’s original compositions from the 1960’s. It will be a great evening with great players from The Royal Academy of Music led by Nick Smart (Head of Jazz), myself on sitar and Mitel Purohit on tabla.
LINKS: Guardian obituary of John Mayer
More about the 16 November concert on the EFG London Jazz Festival website