Meet the Indian topping international jazz charts: A Wknd interview with Charu Suri

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Sep 22, 2023 06:26 PM IST

She has roots in Chennai. Her music isn’t purely jazz; it has ragas woven in. She never expected this response, she says. Tune into the tale of Rags & Ragas.

For a long time, musicians have tried to blend jazz’s syncopated polyrhythms and modal harmonies with the intricate melodies and complex rhythms of Indian classical music, attempting to bring these two improvisational traditions together, in closer conversation.

Suri’s album, Rags & Ragas, hit #3 on the iTunes US jazz charts in September. Why? Well, in one track, for instance, she explores resonances between Raga Bageshri and the iconic five-chord phrasing found on Miles Davis’s So What. PREMIUM
Suri’s album, Rags & Ragas, hit #3 on the iTunes US jazz charts in September. Why? Well, in one track, for instance, she explores resonances between Raga Bageshri and the iconic five-chord phrasing found on Miles Davis’s So What.

It’s a baton that has been passed down through generations, from the raga-meets-waltz compositions of Shankar-Jaikishan in the 1950s to the 1960s spiritual-jazz tradition of Yusef Lateef and Alice Coltrane and the more recent raga-jazz-rock of Delhi brothers Aditya and Tarun Balani.

Charu Suri’s latest album, Rags & Ragas — which hit #3 on the iTunes US jazz charts last week — fits neatly into this storied lineage, incorporating Carnatic ragas into a rich, virtuosic framework of swing, bebop and New Orleans ragtime. But she isn’t just spinning the jazz-fusion wheel. Suri’s organic, intricate and innovative arrangements create a distinctive sound that is entirely her own.

“Rags & Ragas is an ode to the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans, a city that also got me started on my jazz journey,” says Suri, 45. “I wanted to showcase the breadth of the raga tradition, and how ragas could transform into jazz.”

She is speaking via video call, seated before a piano in her New Jersey home, and occasionally plays a chord progression or two to illustrate a point she’s making.

Suri grew up surrounded by music. Her grandmother, Savithri Surianarain, was a Carnatic vocalist who also played the veena, and taught Suri to. Her father Rajah Iyer Surianarain loved waltzes, jazz and Western classical music too.

When she was five, the family moved to Nigeria, where her father had accepted a job as CEO with a record label. The house they moved into came with a piano and, one day, as Suri’s mother Sarasa Surianarain tells it, the little girl just sat down and started playing.

“My mother says I was like a freak,” Suri laughs. “She couldn’t explain it. Naturally, she had to find someone to give me lessons… I guess I just started playing the piano and never stopped.”

Suri’s piano lessons continued when the family returned to Chennai. She spent formative years here, training in Western classical music. At 15, she won an international piano-playing contest, which helped her get admission to Princeton University, to study classical literature and musical performance. A piece she composed for a chamber orchestra was performed at Princeton by French-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma and American bassist and composer Edgar Meyer.

But once she’d graduated, Suri found herself resisting the institutional pressures to quickly release her own compositions — the musical equivalent of academia’s “publish or perish” problem. “That’s a very dangerous mentality to subscribe to, because you end up following in other people’s footsteps and never really finding your own voice,” she says. “So I did the opposite. I took some time off, and poured myself into freelance reporting. I wanted to travel the world and really find my voice before releasing an album.”

She became an award-winning travel journalist, with bylines in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. She continued to perform, becoming (in 2019) one of a handful of Indian-born composers to have played at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

It was a 2018 gig she attended in New Orleans, featuring the city’s iconic Preservation Hall Jazz Band, that inspired her to return to compositional work, this time in the jazz idiom.

Her first release — an EP or extended play album titled The New American Songbook (2019) — was a jazz record. But she soon decided she wanted to do something different, adding her own flavour to this century-old tradition.

“When I started to do my homework, I listened to all these great composers — Beethoven, Bartok, Debussy — and they all had their signature voice and signature style,” she says. “I knew that, for my own satisfaction, I needed to bring my own footprint, my heritage, into jazz.”

So she started formal lessons in jazz and resumed lessons in Indian classical music (she continues both today). Worked to refine her brand of raga-influenced jazz music. And released three albums in quick succession: The Book of Ragas Vol 1 (2019) and Vol 2 (2021), followed by Ragas & Waltzes, last year.

Each was increasingly confident and accomplished in its genre-bending innovation. The 2022 album, with its 19th-century European waltzes filtered through a distinctly South Asian lens, was a tribute to her recently departed father.

“Every year, we would stay up and listen to the Vienna Philharmonic doing their famous New Year’s Concert, featuring waltzes by Strauss,” Suri says. “For my father, Strauss was one of the most amazing composers who ever lived. He had such a joie de vivre and a levity to him. Anytime my father was in a bad mood, he would put on a Strauss waltz.”

Rags & Ragas, released this month, is Suri’s most expansive and ambitious record yet, the fullest realisation of her unique style, blending the playful exuberance of New Orleans jazz with the meditative spirituality of Indian classical music. It features contributions by some of the style’s leading proponents, including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band drummer Joe Lastie, the American bassist John Patitucci, and the percussionist and Paul Simon and Steely Dan collaborator Steve Gadd.

“I wanted it to be a really powerful showcase of the versatility and breadth of ragas,” Suri says. “That’s why I have folded in everything from Bhairavi to Bageshri, two completely diametric opposites in terms of what ragas can do.”

She found unexpected synchronicity along the way, such as the album highlight Spring in New Orleans / Ode To Miles Davis, which finds resonances between Raga Bageshri and the iconic five-chord phrasing found on Davis’s So What.

“I wanted to say to the listener: Look at the possibilities,” Suri says. “Don’t just pigeonhole Eastern and Western music in two separate buckets. There are all these parallels.”

With the album receiving rave reviews — it also, somewhat surprisingly, ranked #2 on the iTunes jazz charts for Kenya — Suri is now readying to take it on the road, starting with a concert at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on October 8.

She has shows lined up at Preservation Hall; at the legendary New York jazz club Birdland; and at Carnegie Hall. An India tour is in the works too.

Meanwhile, she is happy to sit back and take it all in. “It’s incredible… just so surprising to me,” Suri says. “I would never have thought of [hitting #3 on an iTunes chart] in a million years. I just wanted to create something lasting and beautiful for people to listen to.”

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