Sandy Evans: ‘the potential for collaborations between jazz and Indian musical traditions is almost infinite’

If you know anything about saxophonist, composer and music educator Sandy Evans, it’s that she’s a bit of a dynamo. She has performed with and composed for all the big names in Australian jazz and toured extensively across Australia as well as Europe, North America and Asia. She is a member of a number of iconic jazz ensembles including The Catholics, Ten Part Invention, Clarion Fracture Zone and Mara! – not to mention her own band.

Sandy has had a long love affair with Indian classical music and in her latest project, Bridge of Dreams, she collaborated with legendary Hindustani singer Shubha Mudgal and master of the tabla Aneesh Pradhan to create a powerful new work.

It’s not often that you’ll hear these Indian classical masters (accompanied by harmonium player Sudhir Nayak and our very own Bobby Singh on tabla) performing with a jazz big band, the 17-piece Sirens Big Band, so fasten your seatbelts for a thrilling ride.

I was curious about the processes involved in creating this work and Sandy kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Sandy Evans with Shubha Mudgal

Your newest project, Bridge of Dreams, which premieres at the Sydney Festival on 12 January is a kind of musical marriage of east and west and with 22 musicians; it is quite a formidable undertaking. How did it come about?

I’ve been friends with tabla player Bobby Singh for many years and have had many opportunities to play with him. During tours of Ben Walsh’s Fearless Nadia with Bobby in Australia and India in 2012 and 2013, I got to know and work with Aneesh Pradhan and Sudhir Nayak. I discovered that we all shared a passion for deepening the exchange of ideas between jazz musicians and Indian musicians. Whenever we had a spare moment, we’d meet in one of our hotel rooms to play music to each other and discuss creative ideas. This was very inspiring.

I was lucky to visit Mumbai in 2014 on a Churchill Fellowship and undertake an exploratory creative development period with Aneesh and leading Hindustani singer Shubha Mudgal. We loved this experience and hoped to collaborate on a project at some future time. I also had a history of collaboration with Sirens Big Band, including co-composing (with Harri Harding), the title track of their first album, Kali and the Time of Change.

I was very pleased when Sirens’ bandleader, Jess Dunn, asked me if I’d be interested in composing a major work for them. We discussed a number of ideas, and I suggested this collaboration with Aneesh and Shubha. It was a hugely ambitious project to undertake, but Jess and the band enthusiastically accepted the challenge!

Your fascination with Indian classical music is well known and has produced some inspiring work in recent years. I recall you speaking at Wangaratta in 2016 about its different rhythms, harmonies and textures and while it seems improbable that ancient Indian musical traditions can be successfully melded with modern jazz to produce something extraordinary, this is what you’ve done. The track ‘Arms of Imagination’ has so many gorgeous rich layers (oh, the mesmerising voice of Shubha Mudgal!) and it makes me wonder how difficult it is to achieve this effect. How do you go about envisaging and then structuring the finished work with such disparate influences at play?

Thanks for your kind words about the music. Oh my goodness, this is a very big question! My feeling is that the potential for collaborations between jazz and Indian musical traditions is almost infinite. The enormous depth and diversity of Indian musical traditions, the huge scope of jazz and the constantly evolving nature of musical practice in all these fields, result in a huge number of confluences and differences that offer creative opportunities for collaborative exchange.

In Bridge of Dreams, the collaboration between myself, Shubha and Aneesh was at the core of the creative process. I am not in any way expert in Hindustani music – they are! They generously share their knowledge, are willing to experiment, trust, take risks, and allow me to use my instincts to shape and recontextualise the musical materials they offer. My small background in Carnatic music, and my experience playing with Guru Kaaraikkudi Mani, Bobby Singh and Sarangan Sriranganthan has helped me understand certain things about raga and tala that definitely helped in this collaboration. Nevertheless, my contribution was more from my perspective as a jazz composer and arranger.

In ‘Arms of Imagination’, the process began with Aneesh explaining the lyrics. They’re from a poem in Urdu by a Gauhar Raza, a friend of Shubha and Aneesh’s in Delhi. The poem is about differently-abled people. It begins:

Meray khayaal ki baahein athaah samundar hain

The arms of my imagination are like an infinite ocean

ye saare gham ko jahaan kay samet sakti hain

Capable of holding within their comforting embrace every pain that the world has known

naheen jo aankh to ehsaas ban gai hai nazar

If blind, the ability to feel transforms into sight

ye din ko, raat ko, taaron ko dekh sakti hai

to experience the joy of day, night and the stars

Aneesh composed the vocal melody in a north Indian raga called Jog. In Western equivalence, it has both a minor and major 3rd. I spent time becoming familiar with the raga and the tala (in this piece is an 8-beat cycle called Keherva). Another important feature of Hindustani music is the theka played on the tabla (Aneesh describes this as a universally accepted sequence of strokes that demarcate the framework of the taal[tala] p. 3 Tabla, A Performers Perspective). Tabla thekas have some similarity to drum kit grooves; both are skeletal rhythmic frameworks that players adapt to specific songs, tempi and contexts. Hence, I was able to look for complementary grooves for drum kit, percussion and tabla.

I learnt the melody by listening to recordings of Aneesh and Shubha singing it. Aneesh also had ideas about how this song might be orchestrated for big band. He had an idea that this piece could capture some of the energy and polyphony he remembered from listening to recordings of early jazz. We listened to recordings of Louis Armstrongs Hot Five together. Even though the eventual arrangement of ‘Arms of Imagination’ isn’t in that style, listening to Louis Armstrong helped us conceive the sound we eventually arrived at.

I love composing and arranging music for a vocalist in a big band context and have had a reasonable amount of experience doing this (e.g. in a previous work Testimony). I love listening to and learning about great jazz composers and arrangers like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Gil Evans, John Sangster, Judy Bailey, Paul Grabowsky, and many others! Even so, there are some different challenges working with Indian musicians. One is that Shubha almost always sings in Ab, so there’s no possibility to change keys to suit instrumental tessitura. Like all restrictions, this is also a chance to find new creative possibilities. I particularly enjoyed working on the orchestration of ‘Ya Kareem’ where I applied serial techniques to control the gradual expansion of register across the instruments to mirror the slow unfolding of the pitch spectrum in the vocal melody.

For Bridge of Dreams, you were writing in Australia, while your co-composers, Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, were writing in India. What particular challenges faced you all as composers working together but apart? Were there advantages to working this way?

It would have been very difficult to work across continents unless we already had established musical and personal relationships. Aneesh visited Sydney for a creative development period in October 2016 to work on Bridge of Dreams with me. We skyped Shubha each afternoon, and also held an exploratory workshop with Sirens Big Band. We had more face-to-face contact in 2017 when Jess, Bobby and I went to Mumbai to record the voice, harmonium and tabla parts. Most of the main ideas for the music were established during these sessions. However, a lot of the compositional process did take place transcontinentally. We exchanged MP3s of melodic, rhythmic and arrangement ideas. These were sung, played, clapped, spoken and (in my case) midi files generated from Sibelius.

Ideally, I think we’d have preferred to undertake the collaboration entirely face-to-face, but with patience, determination, and help from technology we were able to work this way successfully. We each had specific roles in the composition of each song; this also helped. I was always responsible for arranging the music for the whole ensemble, Shubha mostly decided on the phrasing of the vocal melodies and Aneesh laid down the rhythmic patterns and grooves for the tabla parts.

The sound engineers who worked on the recording (Ross Ahern, Nitin Joshi and Richie Belkner) also played a crucial role in the development of the music. It was built up layer by layer, with the Indian parts being recorded first in Mumbai, then Sirens’ rhythm section, then Sirens’ horns. Technically this was a big challenge for the engineers, associate producers (Harri Harding, Jess Dunn and James Greening) and the musicians. I had to hold a major project in my head for several years, imagining how things might come together over time. I was so happy when Ross put the final track, ‘Beam, Arch, Suspension’, together at his studio in September. This composition is based on drawings of three different bridges including a suspension bridge, the Chakzam bridge south of Lhasa, constructed in 1430. Bringing the musical architecture together to complete the bridge was very rewarding.

You’ve enjoyed a close relationship with Sirens Big Band in recent years. What does that collective bring to a work like Bridge of Dreams?

Sirens Big Band has developed its own fantastic sound and approach to the big band genre. Although they’ve played mainstream big band repertoire, they’re renowned for exploring new ideas generated by the wonderful composers and arrangers in the band – people like Ellen Kirkwood and Harri Harding and other contemporary composers. They also love playing music inspired by various groove-based genres drawing on Ethio, Latin, Arabic and reggae influences, among others. This interest aligns with many of my musical interests, both in Indian-jazz collaborations and in other contexts I play in such as groups like Mara! and Lloyd Swanton’s The Catholics.

Sirens Big Band has a social conscience, advocating for gender diversity, refugees and people from diverse cultural backgrounds. They have very high musical standards and are very disciplined; they rehearse in a very focused and committed fashion. They can be very precise with intonation, dynamics, phrasing, feel and articulation, but can also let loose with passionate energy and abandon. All these attributes suit this project brilliantly.

I’m very grateful to leader Jess Dunn for her sustained belief in this project. It’s pretty incredible that we are finally releasing the album and presenting the concert!

We’ve also been fortunate to have a wonderful artist, Monica Higgins, doing graphic design for us. Monica has been associated with Sirens Big band for some time; her artwork has added to the character of the project in a special and magical way.

Should music always be about an exchange of ideas, a bridge into new ways of seeing?

That philosophy is certainly at the core of this project, but I wouldn’t like to dictate that music should always be about that. Music can be anything anyone wants it to be – that’s part of the beauty of it!

During the Fearless Nadia tour I mentioned earlier, Bobby Singh was known as ‘BBSingh’ – Bobby ‘the bridge’ Singh! He was the one who facilitated cultural exchange through musical, linguistic and cultural translation. He has generously taken on this role in many projects and Australian music is very much the richer for it.

Do you think music helps to bring harmony to a troubled world?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a musician, but thought it was too selfish to do that, when there were so many problems in the world that I wanted to solve in practical ways. However, through some life-changing experiences, I decided that contributing to the world as an artist would be a worthwhile life path after all. That’s just as well, because that’s what I wanted to do in my heart of hearts. Unfortunately, I don’t think music can solve the problems of a troubled world. But yes, I do think that if it is played and received with a spirit of compassion, mutual respect and artistic integrity, then music can help to bring harmony to individuals and to societies.

Hearing Shubha sing is such a moving experience. Even at rehearsals in a living room in Mumbai, Jess and I were in tears listening to her incredibly beautiful vocal performances. I’m sure people will be transformed by hearing her extraordinary singing, not to mention the great playing of Aneesh and Sudhir.

Shubha has chosen, or written, many of the texts for this project. I’d like to share this quote from her about why she has chosen two texts (the lyrics for ‘Ya Kareem’ and ‘Deepening of the Red Sun’) by the fifteenth mystic poet, Kabirdas:

“For me, what is important is that many of his verses are relevant even today. His fearless denouncing of communal violence and disharmony, his protest against the orthodoxy of religious rituals, and his overarching message of peace is as relevant today as it must have been centuries ago.”

I hope that this world premiere may be a small contribution to our wish for a peaceful and harmonious 2019.

The world premiere of Bridge of Dreams is 12 January 2019 at City Recital Hall, Angel Place presented by Sandy Evans and the Sirens Big Band and featuring Shubha Mudgal (voice), Aneesh Pradhan (tabla), Sudhir Nayak (harmonium) and Bobby Singh (tabla).

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