Niran Dasika: “I like to imagine my albums as fantastical creatures”

I became aware of Niran Dasika by accident. It was one of my first months in Melbourne, I stepped into Uptown Jazz Cafe and saw this calm, composed young musician creating wild wordls out of his trumpet. This was in 2015. The music I heard was a presentation of his album, Manticore – and apparently that gig was also recorded. I have been following Niran’s path since and when I listened to Suzaku, the album he recorded with his Tokyo band, I was once again amazed with his open approach to composition and improvisation. Now he’s set to present all this at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz – which is a great opportunity for an interview, one which tackles the issues of creativity, introspection, ramen, mythological winged creatures and the music he calls “uhh… kind of like jazz.”

What are you going to present at the Wangaratta festival?

I’m really excited to present a few different facets of my music at this year’s festival.

As the Niran Dasika Quartet we will play material from Suzaku, my latest album with my Tokyo-based quartet. The music has a lot of energy and a rhythmic focus, with maybe some fusion-like elements. It’s the closest I have come yet to making a ‘jazz’ album.

Above all, though, I hope people find the music as much fun as I do! That’s at 8-9pm in the WPAC Hall.

I’m also thrilled to play as a duo with pianist Sumire Kuribayashi, who is visiting from Tokyo. We’ve been playing gigs as a duo sporadically for almost two years in small jazz clubs around Tokyo, but the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Wangaratta is really an ideal venue for the music. Sumire is a brilliant pianist who places a high value on sound and as a duo we try to bring out the most of the individual and combined sounds of trumpet and piano. I have written a collection of small compositions inspired by the nihonga style paintings of Kaii Higashiyama which we will perform on the Saturday from 12-1pm in the Holy Trinity Cathedral.

What does playing at Wangaratta mean to you?

I’ve been to the Wangaratta festival every year since my first year of university in 2012, so I guess the past six festivals.

The very earliest memory I have of the festival is arriving in Wangaratta for the first time late at night, confused and disoriented, and following some friends into the WPAC Theatre, not knowing who was playing. That was the first and last time I got to see Bernie McGann play!

The next morning, I stumbled into the theatre – most likely after a night of immoderate drinking – and had my mind irreversibly blown by David Ades playing his A Glorious Uncertainty music with Julien Wilson. The same festival introduced me to Steve Magnusson’s MAGNET, still one of my favourite Australian jazz projects.

So I guess Wangaratta holds some pretty formative musical memories for me. Last year, I attended the festival as a contestant in the National Jazz Awards, which was a totally different experience – much more stressful. 2018 is the first year I am presenting my own music at the festival and it’s hard to not feel this as a huge personal milestone.

How has the journey of Suzakubeen so far?

Suzaku was in many ways a culmination of everything I was doing in Japan from the end of 2015 to late 2017. Midwinter motorbike travels, the sudden death of a friend, working part time as a translator for nine months in a Tokyo music shop, lots of midnight jam sessions, pretty extreme anxiety and a whole lot of ramen…

I reached mid-2017 with a sizeable backlog of experiences, emotions, lessons, and personal tragedies that needed some kind of release.

I had been playing pretty extensively with pianist Sumire Kuribayashi and drummer Shun Ishiwaka in separate bands and I knew the bassist Takashi Sugawa from various chance encounters. When I thought of putting together a quartet to record, I didn’t have to think very long! Each of them brings their own perspective of Tokyo’s jazz lineage; Sumire has had a long, close association with the legendary Japanese bass elder Hideaki Kanazawa, Takashi spent some years in Brooklyn studying with the late great Masabumi Kikuchi, and Shun has been in trumpet legend Hino Terumasa’s regular touring band for several years. Above else, they each bring a unique, personal approach to their instrument that I really value.

I set out with the goal to make a standard jazz trumpet quartet album, but my intention from the beginning was to fail, and in that we succeeded far better than I hoped. The result is something pretty special and I feel proud to call it my own music!

In March 2018 we launched the album with a small tour across Japan, which was probably the most fun I’ve ever had. The response at all the gigs to the music was incredible, a really life-affirming experience.

‘Suzaku’ is the Japanese word for the Vermillion Bird from Chinese astro-mythology. I like to imagine my albums as fantastical creatures and I saw this music very vividly as an enormous, graceful bird perched among the densely packed urban landscape of Tokyo. The album artwork was done by Non Nakagawa, a wonderful illustrator based in Kyoto, who captured the picture in my head perfectly.

What do you think when you think of Tokyo?

I went to Tokyo with the intention of being alone, but that was another resounding failure. I came back with an amazing network of new friendships and a much greater appreciation of all the other people in my life – cheesy answer, sorry. That was thanks to the incredibly welcoming jazz community I found over there. I also came back with an incurable ramen addiction.

How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with it?

There is always an emotional element to my music. You will either feel something or learn something about me. Other than that, I usually just tell people it’s “uhh… kind of like jazz.”

What does jazz mean to you?

Jazz to me is about connection. I’m a pretty introverted person and I’ve never really felt comfortable talking a lot or being the centre of attention, but jazz is a way I have been able to form connections with people and find my place in a community while also giving me a vehicle to express who I am to the world – or whoever is listening.

Why did you choose the trumpet?

The trumpet was chosen for me when I was 10, when my mum saw an advertisement in the local paper for free brass lessons with the local brass band. I played a mix of cornet and baritone horn for years in the Mordialloc Brass Band, which would several years later transform into the Mordialloc Jazz Orchestra; the repertoire changed but we kept the euphoniums and tuba section…

I guess my relationship with jazz began by playing Glenn Miller tenor sax charts on baritone horn, which in hindsight was pretty weird.

The trumpet is a hard instrument, as any trumpeter will tell you, but it also has no boundaries! The only problem is that it requires constant work over a really long time to get any kind of progress, but I’ve come to enjoy the disciplined lifestyle that that entails. Every day the trumpet behaves slightly differently and I love picking up the instrument each morning to feel what’s changed. The trumpet has given me some of my happiest memories and in return I feel that it deserves some respect and some gratitude. There’s definitely a reciprocal relationship there.

Who are your heroes?

I can’t really avoid talking about Australian jazz heroes here. Scott Tinkler. Eugene Ball. Paul Williamson. I count myself extremely lucky to have been able to study with each of them through my undergrad studies at Monash. Listening to any one of them is a masterclass in the limitless expressive power of the trumpet. I’ve also been really fortunate to work with another jazz hero, Paul Grabowsky, in the past few years.

What is your greatest aspiration?

Playing music with as many different people, to as many different people, in as many different places as possible, for as long as possible. That’s what I’d like to do.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

In keeping with the spirit of this interview,


The Niran Dasika Quartet is playing at the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz on Saturday 3 November

Niran Dasika and Sumire Kuribayashi are performing at the Perth International Jazz Festival on Saturday 10 November