Interview: TimeOut Mumbai

With NARESH FERNANDES, Timeout Mumbai Magazine, January 2007

It’s been 15 years since Jazzmates. What’s changed for you since?
Much – it’s been a great journey and continues to be. I think the two most significant changes in my life have been geographical moves across the globe, and the inevitable – getting older! I think the latter has a lot to do with changing your perspective on life and the intensity of commitment to things important in your self-development as an artist.

Around the time of the release of Sound Matters‘ in India (1991), we had the opportunity to move to Ottawa, Canada. It came at a time when we were trying to play jazz in an otherwise bleak environment, and although the move was a job related one for Noel, we both felt it was necessary for our own growth as musicians to place ourselves in a more creative environment.

How difficult was it to break into the Boston performing circuit?
Boston is a culturally a very rich city, and on any given day, there are a slew of events taking place. Although it doesn’t have the same degree of nightlife that New York City enjoys, it still has a fair amount of performing musicians and teachers (there are several music colleges and schools here) in all musical idioms.

Eventually it’s one’s own responsibility for making things happen and work for you. In the music business, your CD (or demo) is your business card. It had been a while since my last recording, and I felt the need to record this stage of my life as a musician, before moving on to the next phase. With eleven compositions recorded over the span of two days in the studio, ‘A New Leaf’ was born.

I believe playing music is a lot easier than the act of marketing it. It requires hard work, networking skills, and of course money. It’s a time-consuming process and you have to have the tenacity of a salesman. It’s easy to understand why jazz musicians here don’t release as many CD’s as they’d like to! Which is sad, because there’s so much good music happening which deserves to be recorded. For myself, signing with the jazz label (Whaling City Sound) proved to be a tremendous boost in gaining distribution within the US and abroad, and the album received a healthy amount of radio airplay in the months following its release. But to be in the performing circuit (there’s no dearth of good musicians here!), you have to put yourself out there – so the promotional efforts continue, mainly connecting with jazz venues, festival & club promoters. Unfortunately in Boston, as in most other metros, jazz clubs are few and far in between. There’s been the closure of quite a few jazz venues here. Most gigs go to artists who are already established in the field and to newcomers that commercial labels push. There seems to be a trend towards less support for the arts and artists in general, so these are hard times for jazz musicians, but we continue to do what we do because we love it.

How did the band come together?
On moving to Boston in late ’99 I started checking out the local music scene. Eventually, as plans for the album began taking shape; my first priority was seeking out a rhythm section in which the members empathized with my compositions, while contributing a personal sound to the music as well. I heard Fernando Huergo on several occasions and always loved his melodic approach on the bass. He is an amazing composer too. I knew Ziv would be a great fit as a drummer for the project – he is a very musical, energetic and responsive drummer, playing a gamut of colors, from ECM, to swing, free jazz and beyond. I should mention that through all this, I continued playing with my guitarist –husband Noel, which is a real blessing and a blissful convenience. His inclusion in the band was pretty much a given (he says I never gave him a choice since I never asked him!). Phil Grenadier on trumpet was an integral part of the quintet – I had written several tunes which featured trumpet, and for this project wanted the varying hue of this instrument – bold and brash sometimes, muted and warm at others. Esperanza Spalding, who is also an amazing bass player, was involved with my music since we’d shed together several days a week at times. I got her to contribute some unique and exciting vocals on a couple of tunes.

You now have a much broader palette of musical instrumentalists to draw from than when you were in Bombay. Is this a challenge?
The piano is an orchestral instrument, and the great thing about having a choice of instrumentalists is that you can transform chords, voicings and lines into orchestral arrangements. It helps if you have a certain person in mind, that way you write taking into consideration tonal range, technical limitations etc. It’s also important for me to try and achieve a sense of balance between the total sound canvas and the intricacies that go on in the belly of the composition. As far as improvisation goes, I think the challenge is to write heads in a way so as to bring out the creative best in the individual members of the group.

Has your musical focus changed since you were in Bombay? I notice even more of a Latin influence, I think…
You’re right… among other influences, there definitely a Brazilian influence happening there, also some Argentinean flavor thrown in courtesy my bass player, Fernando. Swing and ECM constitute the core around which these other influences revolve. I believe there’s been a huge shift in my musical focus since my days in Bombay. When I started playing jazz in the late ‘80’s, the idea of improvising was new and I confess, almost intimidating, especially after years of formal classical training. The focus, for me, was all about being correct and playing the right things. Which is cool, I guess, but I knew I was missing something big. As my listening and observation of musicians whom I respected grew, I realized my playing needed to feel more fluid, organic, with a deeper connection to rhythm particularly the interplay between sound and silence. Jazz technique is all about conveying your ideas to the listener at a certain point of time. Meeting one of my inspirations, Kenny Werner, was consequential, he helped me reconnect with my instrument in a way that I always wanted to – this, and the fact that getting older brings along with it confidence and a beautiful sense of urgency, allows me to feel a sense of freedom & joy in the way I approach music now.

How important was your musical training in Bombay for putting you where you are today?
My musical training in Bombay laid a foundation that was pretty solid in terms of theory, technique and piano skills. It gave me knowledge and facility on the instrument. It allowed me to assimilate styles through the centuries and gain a historical perspective, all of which helps me in my role as a teacher today. But a classical background doesn’t groom you in jazz technique Although Bach was a great improviser, and Debussy used pedal tones and modal harmonies, playing their music from scores will neither help your improvisational skills or your feeling for jazz. I think there is a large amount of shedding you have to do on your own. This, and the invaluable experience of playing with other musicians.

How important an influence was your father?
My father (Enoch Daniels) worked in the Bollywood studios for almost half a decade since the late 1950’s as an accordionist, keyboard player and arranger. He was very supportive of my music, and as a child, I witnessed much foot traffic of musicians in our home, and made frequent visits to recording studios (I loved the cool air-conditioning which was a treat in an otherwise humid and hot climate!) either to tag along with him or to record a quick jingle. It was perfectly okay for me to practice it to the point of obsession and pretty normal to choose it as a profession later in life.

What does “Home” mean for you?
Finding an emotional balance when faced with a major re-location can be challenging. Human beings are created to love and be loved, to be surrounded by family and friends. I’ve learnt that home, regardless of where you reside on the planet, is the space you create for yourself that is warm & restful; where you feel secure with your memories and your dreams for the future. It’s not so much a tangible thing as it is awareness or a feeling – something I might equate with the pleasure that comes when consuming comfort food. Actually it was a toss-up between titling this album ‘Home’ or ‘A New Leaf’, but I went with the latter.

You’re using your voice on this. How much of a challenge does that present?

Although I’ve never really taken voice seriously, I’ve sung pretty much all my life. It’s been mainly about playing and writing, although I’ve recently begun to explore breathing and vocal techniques. Its funny, but this album was originally planned without voice. After laying down the tracks in the studio, I felt there was a dimension missing. I had always heard parts sub-consciously while playing the tunes – they were integral to the composition – at least in my head. Perhaps in another situation, I’d have written them down for sax or trombone, but this wasn’t an option at that time, so I chose to record them myself, treating the voice as an instrument. In retrospect, I’m glad it happened this way; I feel the voice contributes an added warmth and texture to this CD.

How important is Noel in your creative process?
Very…It’s great to be able to share a common passion for jazz – his tenacity and dedication to the practice of his art and instrument are inspiring to me. I should mention that he also happens to hold a full-time job as a software engineer. His contribution as producer on this project was invaluable, both technically and musically. Self-criticism, in healthy doses, can spur you to reach higher levels of accomplishment, but what is also invaluable is criticism from someone else other than yourself, a person whose knowledge and ears you can trust. For me, that person is Noel. He’s the most forthright & honest critic I’ve had the pleasure to know! And I know of other musicians who’ll second me on that! (laughs)

What are the things you miss about Bombay?
It’s impossible not to miss a great city like Bombay. I was born there, and spent nearly thirty years here before moving West. My family and friends whom I’ve known for decades still live here. I miss them; I miss the social fabric that binds everyone together. I miss the small pleasures of this big city with the big heart. And I miss the heat, the food, the sunsets. But, what I miss most is the Bombay I grew up in. The re-christening of the city to Mumbai seems almost symbolic with the changes that have been taking place there in the last decade and more. It saddens me to see the rapid and sometimes shocking decline in the health of the city and the environment. I think it is the hardest issue facing residents now, and sincerely hope that the efforts of those few conscientious citizens involved in the betterment of this city will be rewarded in time.

What’s your next project?
Although there aren’t any immediate plans, I’m hoping there’ll be another album within the next year or two. I have new material that I am excited about – I sense the sound for the next project is going to be different from the first, and I’m looking forward to see how things will turn out. Meanwhile, the process of evolving as a musician continues. I am blessed to be where I am, and feel a responsibility to create as I go along. Hopefully along the way I will be able to share my music and experiences with others.

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