Why jazz and Indian music have such a strong fusion

For several decades, two quite different musical traditions from opposite sides of the Earth have come together to form a fusion that blends the innovative and the ancient, the spiritual and the visceral, the timeless and the adventurous.

Indo jazz is a genre with infinite layers, and George Koller has been studying and experiencing it for many years. While his main instrument is the bass, Koller is a multi-instrumentalist who also plays the sitar, sarod, tanpura, esraj and dilruba. From his first discovery of Indo jazz in school and through his extensive work with Indian classical and Indo-jazz artists such as Autorickshaw and Monsoon, Koller has immersed himself in the theory, instrumentation and traditions of Indian music throughout his 40-year career.

Now, he’s hosting an exclusive JAZZ.FM91 documentary series called East West Universe, which explores the collaboration of Eastern and Western musicians throughout the decades. Tune in Sundays at 9 am, or click here to catch up on past episodes.

“My goal as a curator is to help explain some of the nuances of jazz and Indian classical music, and how they came together,” he says.

We asked Koller to tell us more about this musical exploration, and why jazz and Indian classical musicians are often so drawn to one another.

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Let’s hear about your own experience with Indian music.

One path I’ve been on for my whole life has been as a jazz bass player. Early on, I met some great teachers. (There was) one in particular in Edmonton, where I’m from; he came from India, and he taught me sitar, rubab and voice, and we wrote tunes and arrangements together for a small jazz ensemble. So that was my first experience of doing it. And simultaneously from 1975 to 1980, this was happening in the world with ECM Records and the dawn of the Internet. I grew up in that time when this was going on. Then, I came to Toronto and discovered all kinds of people with similar experiences — musicians, composers, teachers from India. Toronto became a hotbed for all this activity. And if you look over the last 25 to 30 years, there are at least 12 bands I’ve played with that have been focused on this type of music.

Tell us more about that Indian influence on jazz and all sorts of other genres — the influence that you and your peers picked up. Why has it been so impactful on so many people around the world?

There’s an element of mysticism and spirituality. It’s so old — it’s 5,000 years old. I think some of the mathematics, the geometry of the music, the deeper you go, you can just keep peeling back the layers of this music. The fact that it’s so old means that it has a connection to astronomy, the times of day, certain moods, and maybe we as a young Western population don’t have quite that same way of looking at things. I found that people were attracted to that aspect of it. The sounds of the sitar, the tabla, the sarod, they were attracted to those instruments. And that stuff is not written out. We score music on paper, but that was all an oral tradition. There was an attraction to the challenge of having to write that stuff out in a way that we could read it. So there are three things right there: the sounds of the instruments, the age of the music and the wisdom embedded in it, and of course the challenge of writing it out.

And also, the Indian musicians have an improvisational element, too. So they were attracted to our jazz. It was going both ways. How can we have Indo-jazz structures that allow the musicians to improvise? What sounds good and what doesn’t sound good? There’s a lot of quasi-failed fusion experiments. Maybe not failures, but a little more confused fusion, where there’s not a lot of philosophical depth. But the musicians that really did it well, that’s interesting to me and I think it’ll be interesting to the audience.

What are some examples of musicians that have done it very well?

John Coltrane … heard it and hung out with it, and he embedded some of the Indian drones and modes into his way of playing. Of course, Shakti with John McLaughlin is a huge example of how that can work. Oregon, Larry Coryell. You shoot up to today and in Toronto you have Tasa, the Toronto Tabla Ensemble, Monsoon, Avataar, Autorickshaw. And then you have the future, which I see in groups like the Berklee Indian Ensemble. They’re really moving this forward, groups like that.

Avataar – PETAL (the space between)

Aside from improvisation, what else do you think really brings jazz and Indian music together to create that Indo-jazz fusion?

On the Indian side, they like our technology and they like our bravado — standing up rather than sitting down. They like all the show-business aspects, the amplification, the guitar effects, the drums. They love the idea of magnifying their music into Western instruments and Western stages, standing up and being a part of the rock and jazz thing. And we love the idea of slowing down a little bit. There’s a timelessness in Indian classical music that we don’t have in our music. There’s a depth of drones and peacefulness. I think there’s a nice back-and-forth. Western people like going down deep into the roots to help them be better musicians, and the Indian musicians like coming out into the forefront to magnify what they already have. The trick is, of course, trying to remain true to what jazz is and what Indian music is. When they meet, there’s potential for failure. But more often than not, something good comes out of it. And once in a while, something really great comes around.

And you mention groups like the Berklee Indian Ensemble are pushing forward and doing innovative and interesting things.

And you know why? Because they’re growing up in a world where everything is available to them now. With me, it was just dawning, the Internet age. Now, everyone can have everything. They’re starting off with an education early. They’ve got both things churning inside them.

Berklee Indian Ensemble feat. Shankar Mahadevan – 5 Peace Band