Percussionist Sameer Gupta brings classical Indian music into unlikely collaborations

Sameer Gupta is on a mission to bring classical Indian music into places where it rarely ventures. A percussionist who plays tabla and trap drums, Gupta was a mainstay in Bay Area creative music circles until his 2008 move to Brooklyn, where he’s helped kindle a thriving Indian music scene with a weekly jazz-style jam session in a Prospect Park cowboy bar. He returns to California this weekend for a performance Sunday at the Subterranean Art House with Rohan Krishnamurthy
, a master of mridangam, the drum that plays a central role in South Indian music.

“It’s a North Indian meets South Indian percussion concert,” Gupta says. “We want to present each drum on its own and show them together, trading the rhythmic languages back and forth. Both the tabla and the mridangam have amazing timbres and mathematics, so we’ll talk about that and where the instruments fit in the Hindustani and Carnatic traditions.”

You can listen to Gupta’s Aaye Na Balam here.

Gupta is best known in jazz circles as a founding member of New York pianist Marc Cary’s Focus Trio, a protean ensemble featuring Berkeley bassist David Ewell. Gupta and Ewell are also the prodigious rhythm section tandem for the Supplicants, a free jazz trio with saxophonist David Boyce that earned a devoted following with their impassioned performances. The trio was a regular presence at the storefront performance space at MLK and Adeline (known first as Tuva and later as the Jazz House). Drummer Hamir Atwell has taken over the Supplicants drum chair since Gupta moved, but the original lineup reunites Friday, July 27 at San Francisco’s Red Poppy Art House.

It was through the Supplicants that Gupta, who started his musical career as a jazz drummer, decided to turn his attention to the tabla. “David Ewell said he felt that with my phrasing and ideas I was playing tabla on drum set even before I knew about it,” Gupta says.

Krishnamurthy, who is pursuing a doctorate in ethnomusicology at the Eastman School of Music, took a more traditional path, apprenticing with mridangam maestro Guruvayur Dorai in India and the US. But like Gupta has with the North Indian tabla, he’s sought out opportunities to present the mridangam outside Carnatic contexts, collaborating with symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, and world music explorers like Anoushka Shankar and Glen Velez.

What makes the encounter between Gupta and Krishnamurthy particularly exciting is that Gupta is far better versed in Carnatic practices than most tabla players. He’s explored the rhythmic tradition deeply in the Carnatic jazz ensemble VidyA, which performs at the Red Poppy on Thursday, July 26. Founded by Oakland saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, a disciple of the great Carnatic saxophone pioneer Kadri Gopalnath, VidyA also features Ewell on bass.

Above all, Gupta looks for musical situations where he can explore the unknown. Sunday’s concert is his first encounter with Krishnamurthy, and judging by his previous maiden voyages, Gupta knows how to seize the moment. He first met Ewell when he sat in at jam session the bassist played with drummer E.W. Wainwright and pianist Vijay Iyer at Storyville. A few days later he contacted Ewell about forming a new trio with Broun Fellinis saxophonist David Boyce. But rather than arranging an introductory play date, he invited them to lunch at Café Intermezzo on Telegraph.

“Sameer said I want to do a quality studio recording of the first time we play together, and call it ‘First Encounter,’” recalls Ewell, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1993. “At the time I’d been playing with Ben Goldberg in a free and open period with his band. I was feeling really inspired by that kind of adventurousness. Sameer had a bunch of charts, but he said let’s just do a very open version. It felt magical and it has every time we’ve played together since then.”

For more information visit the Subterranean Art House.

In another culturally expansive encounter, reed expert Paul McCandless, a founding member of the groundbreaking world-jazz ensemble Oregon, performs tonight at Freight & Salvage with Italian guitarist Antonio Calogero. With McCandless on oboe, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone and Calogero on steel string and classical guitar, the duo focuses on original compositions redolent of the Mediterranean, but informed by jazz and other musical currents.

Intrepid bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, a tireless musical ringleader, introduces a new band at Jupiter on Friday, Les Gwans Jupons. While she’s usually associated with avant garde leaning projects, she launched this group to explore folk and dance music from the French, Spanish and English-speaking Caribbean, drawing on biguine (Martinique), calypso (Trinidad), cumbia (Colombia), son and bolero (Cuba). The band features guitarist John Finkbeiner, trumpeter Henry Hung, trombonist Rob Ewing and percussionist John Hanes, all frequent Mezzacappa collaborators.

And in a stellar vocal pairing, the incomparable Kenny Washington joins forces Friday with the stylish and unfailingly swinging Bobbe Norris at the Hillside Club on a program billed as “Two Views of The American Song.” They’re joined by a trio led by pianist Larry Dunlap, an ace accompanist who has worked with jazz greats like Joe Williams, Mark Murphy and Cleo Lane. Bassist Dan Feizli and drummer Leon Joyce round out that band.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....