The Bodhisattwa Trio plays Jazz Standards,
April 11,’19, Thursday Jazz Encounter, Phoenix Bar
Those looking for a night out in town and want good music to accompany their merrymaking know that the Phoenix at the Astor on Thursday evenings is a pretty safe bet.
This particular Thursday (April 11th, 2019) however, the Phoenix was harking back to its roots in the form of a jazz standards gig by one of the most talked about bands in town: The Bodhisattwa Trio.
The last time I was at the Phoenix, it was the launch gig of the Arinjoy Trio’s debut album. The audience numbers were mediocre and there was room for improvement in terms of the audience, on that occasion. Today, however, it was downright dismal. There must have been eight people in a room that could easily accommodate 10 times that number. A group of tourists from England formed the bulk of the ‘crowd’ and the disappointment was apparent in the musicians’ faces, but then, I guess they were expecting it. As Bodhisattwa Ghosh, the frontman of the trio, would later say while having a conversation with me that since jazz was very difficult to play and to listen to, and people don’t want to tax their brains, jazz has a low listenership in India.
After a swift soundcheck, I caught Mr. Ghosh going through the charts and approached him. We soon retired to the smoking room of the Phoenix for a conversation about all things Bodhi and beyond, with a Nickelback song playing over the PA.
Excerpts from the INTERVIEW:
Me: What does jazz mean to you?
Bodhisattwa Ghosh:Freedom, actually. Freedom and, most importantly, the will to explore the unknown. That’s jazz.
Me: What are your expectations from the Calcutta music scene in 2019?
B. Ghosh: Not much. The city has a long way to go, musically, and compared to many other places, it’s lagging behind. For various reasons. And I hope we can overcome those reasons.
Me: Can you elaborate on those reasons?
B. Ghosh: The general enthusiasm of the people is very low. The audience, here, takes everything for granted, and there is no novelty towards the musicians who are playing. We, as musicians, feel that we deserve more from the people. And there need to be more venues, more auditorium concerts, rather than pub gigs. Festivals, more festivals. Calcutta has a long way to go.
Me: What do you like and dislike about the Phoenix?
B. Ghosh: There’s nothing to dislike, really. The only dislike is coming from the fact that audience numbers are low. There should be more people, there should be more regulars, there should be more patronage from the audience. And the positives are that Vikram (Puri, director at the Astor) is a good friend of mine, and Nishit (Arora, director at Smoke Inc.) is a good friend of mine, the community itself, musicians and the people who are supporting the musicians, like Vikram, that’s a good system, a very solid system and that’s something that we really look forward to, every Thursday. He has built this property and Nishit has helped the growth of this property. So, we are trying, all of us, musicians and promoters and businessmen, alike. We are trying to promote the music scene and that is a big positive.
Me: Why did you choose a Stratocaster and a CS-336 as your main instruments?
B. Ghosh: (laughs) See, Fender Stratocaster is my sound, I had a Squier Strat since 2002, and in 2006, I got my Fender Strat (tobacco sunburst Fender USA ‘57 reissue Strat). That has become me, basically, that particular style of guitars, S-Style guitars, has become my thing, in many of my compositions only, with the Trio, in fact, that is my sound. And as the days are progressing, I’m getting more and more into jazz. For jazz, you know, like today we are playing jazz standards and for that, you see I am carrying a Gibson (tobacco sunburst Gibson CS-336 with pearl dot inlays), rather than a Fender Strat because I feel that a hollow-body will do justice to the jazz tunes. So, I am in love with the jazz guitar sound, but at the same time, I cannot let go of my roots. That’s why I use both instruments.
Me: Why did you opt for a synthbass sound, instead of a regular bass sound for your new album?
B. Ghosh: There are two reasons. The first reason is that, we were looking to escape, I mean, not escape, really, we were, kind of, done, for two albums, with a guitar-bass-drums kind of sound, so we were looking for more sounds, than a typical, conventional sound. We wanted to go beyond the convention.
Secondly, it is very difficult to get a bass player, a bass player who’s going to stick with the band and who is interested in this kind of music. Of course, there are a few, but we really wanted to keep it a trio. So, given a choice between a really strong pianist, who has a solid left hand vis-a-vis a bass player, I’d choose the former. Shonai (Arunava Chatterjee) is a terrific musician, a musician beyond excellence, and so he has come in and completely changed the sound of the band. So, that’s why I stuck with him. Because first of all, we want to keep it as a trio, because the band is known like that. I don’t want to change the name of the band (laughs). So, with all options considered, we decided to stick with the synthbass sound.
Me: Should a listener do his or her homework before coming to a gig like this?
B. Ghosh: Sure, absolutely. That’s what happens. I mean, if it’s a jazz gig and the listener comes in and expects dance music or, I dunno, punk rock, it doesn’t work that way. And if you go to a rock concert and expect Baadshah and Honey Singh, it doesn’t work. The listener has to know where he or she is going, what kind of concert. That always helps.
Me: Why do you think jazz is an esoteric art-form?
B. Ghosh: That’s because it is very difficult to play and to listen to. For me, you know, as far as all forms of music I have studied, I have found jazz and Hindustani classical to be the toughest. I haven’t studied Western classical (chuckles). So, I think it’s very difficult to play and if you are a listener, it is very difficult to understand all the harmonic changes and the whole vibe. Jazz music is a level of R&D. It is actually a form of science, a form of math. It doesn’t really fall into the easy-listening category. As in, that’s why the popularity is less. People don’t want to tax their brains.
Me: How do you think jazz can be made less esoteric?
B. Ghosh: Festivals. The answer to this is festivals. Because, right now, we only have one jazz festival in the city, which mostly has foreign bands, which is great! The kind of experimentation that the Europeans are doing right now and we get to listen to that in real-time is really great. But more festivals are needed. Not only festivals, you know, multi-band affairs, which will draw more attention. That’s how we can develop a jazz concept, like we have in the west. I have been to places like Berlin and you have a jazz concert, you have around 300-400 people in a small club. So, that culture is needed. The more you nourish it, the more feedback you’ll get.
Me: Tell me a little bit about your idols in jazz and beyond.
B. Ghosh: Oh, man. There are a lot of idols. I can’t really pinpoint any, because there is probably no kind of music I don’t listen to, provided it’s good (chuckles). Miles Davis’ music has taught me a lot, the way he changed music and inspired generation after generation of musicians, that’s incredible. Other than that, John Coltrane. I’m very much into the modern guys like Brad Mehldau, Mark Guiliana, Wayne Krantz, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg, all of these guys. And, you know, I can’t leave out my rock and blues influences. Like David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, and of course, my teacher, Amyt Datta. Because of him, I have moved in this direction. He helped me to dig deeper into jazz. Even Hindustani classical players. I’m a big fan of Ali Akbar Khan and Zakir Hussain.
Me: And lastly, how do you put your signature flair on jazz standards?
B. Ghosh: I don’t know, we try our best. This is such a textbook form of music that is very difficult. Because the guys who have played this type of music in New York and elsewhere, it is their culture, their ethos, so, obviously we have gone after that sound, anything close to that. It would be foolish to try and emulate them. So, it’ll be like we feel it because as a band, right now, we have very good chemistry and that will help us to bring uniqueness into the jazz standards. Like I hope people will say that, “This is the Bodhisattwa Trio, who are playing jazz standards,” rather than, “This is any band playing jazz standards or something like that.”
End of Interview
I settled down in my favorite seat with a clear view of the stage which had seen storied performances since its inception.
The bar was bustling with intoxicating shakings and stirrings, with patrons chatting about odds and ends when the band took stage and Bodhi started by saying, “Welcome to Calcutta, the city that always sleeps.”
Things took a maelströmic turn, for the better, of course, as the handful of people present were transported to the land of cabaret and ritzy joints, homebound to a central future, one of swinging fortunes and fast times, with respectful recreations of Miles Davis’ Four and Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island. It was one of those shows that were filled with sprawling organ wizardry and drum dances keeping things moving and exciting, apart from guitar virtuosity with staggeringly fast runs and convoluted chord voicings which baffled minds and ears alike.
There is no doubt that Bodhisattwa Ghosh is an accomplished guitarist. It is evident from his approach to the instrument and from the way he interprets songs.
But one thing that always bothers me is his presence in the mix and his tone, in general. Today, however, he was prominent in the mix and his tone was appropriately sparse for a low-key jazz event.
Jazz’s largely improvisational aspect and precise nature soon became apparent as the songs passed the introductory mark and so did its inaccessibility to mainstream success. Jazz needs you to pay attention, it can’t capture your attention unless you listen closely. And that is what precisely turns people off.
Most jazz standards’ gigs are usually a low-footfall affair because of the esotericism of the sound involved. This particular gig was no different, as I’ve stated earlier.
So went on this circle of math and music ending in the wee hours of the night, as the band bowed out amidst a thin smattering of applause.