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Over the past three decades Berkeley tenor saxophonist George Brooks has carved a singular musical niche through his collaborations with the some of classical Indian music’s most celebrated artists. His latest project, Global Harmony, expands on his Indo-jazz vision by incorporating rhythms and cadences from North Africa and the Middle East.
Performing Sunday at Freight & Salvage, Global Harmony is an improvisational supergroup that brings together a far-flung collection of masters. From New York there’s Glen Velez, a pioneering frame drum maestro, and vocalist Lori Cotler, who has honed a jazz-laced approach informed by South Indian vocal percussion (konnakol). Hailing from South India are Toronto-based mridangam virtuoso Trichy Sankaran, a superlative accompanist and scholar steeped in the Pudukkottai school of percussion, and Chennai’s Ravikiran on the 21-string fretless lute, or chitravina.
“It’s one of these situations where people are situated in different parts of the planet, and due to wonders of technology we’re able to share music, email MP3s, and think about what each person has been doing,” says Brooks from his West Berkeley studio. “Two weeks ago, Ravikiran was in the South Bay so we had a rehearsal with just the two of us. He’s a composer who also writes for orchestra, and his sense of composition and form are flexible and adventurous, so when I show him one of my compositions, he can think about it as a baseline for improvisation.”
Brooks first began exploring Indian music while attending New England Conservatory in the late 70s. When his wife Emily received a fellowship to study Indian vocal music in 1980, they both spent a year there and Brooks developed a relationship with Pandit Pran Nath, the giant of North Indian vocal music who deeply influenced pioneering minimalist composers Terry Riley and LaMonte Young.
Their mutual passion for Indian music brought Brooks and Riley together, and when the saxophonist settled in Berkeley they began performing widely as a duo, a group that expanded when they were joined by sitarist Krishna Bhatt. At the same time, Brooks was becoming a mainstay on the Bay Area blues scene, touring internationally with Etta James, and leading horn sections for guitarists Albert Collins, Johnny Taylor and Bobby Murray. He also joined the faculty at Mills College, teaching jazz theory and harmony, while developing close ties with the visionary avant garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton.
It wasn’t until 1996 that Brooks first unveiled his own Indian jazz synthesis on his remarkable debut CD, “Lasting Impressions” (Moment Records). Working with Krishna Bhatt and Zakir Hussain, Brooks presented a melodically rich, flowing sound marked by beautiful polytonal passages and extended rhythmic cycles.
“After all my work with Terry Riley, I felt there was something I had to write,” Brooks says. “I wanted some vehicle that was going to give me the Indian thing as well as some of the jazz stuff. I was also playing blues and I liked that earthy energy, and I wanted to see if there was a way to bring everything together.”
His relationship with Hussain, the scion of a percussion dynasty and one of the world’s most respected tabla players, deepened with 1998’s “Night Spinner,” which was also released on the Hussain’s Moment label. Hussain co-produced the album, and they honed their musical connection through a series of duo performances.
Whatever context he plays in, Brooks’s music is marked by his huge, wonderfully dense but pliable tone. It’s a sound he’s built self-consciously, starting back when he was studying at the New England Conservatory with storied saxophone teacher Joe Allard, who mentored jazz luminaries from Harry Carney to Michael Brecker. Inspired by Dexter Gordon’s thick, liquid tone Brooks took to practicing one note at a time, and in his quest to endow each note with its own particular resonant character, he discovered an essential connection between jazz and Indian music.
“I’d take one note and just play it over and over and over, listening to all the colors until it became entrancing,” Brooks says. “Which is the way you learn to sing Indian music. You sing sa, the first note of the scale, and you sing it for a couple of years, until you develop a sound that’s both in tune and that’s rich with harmonic colors you can control.”
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.
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