Grammy-nominated musicians, Mike Stern and Louiz Banks, give us their take on collaborations, fusions and jazz in India.
How did the gig come about?
Mike Stern: I had heard of Louiz Banks a lot, since we belong to the same scene. But I first met him when my wife, Leni, did a concert in India a decade ago, and worked with him.
(Smiles) I really liked his sound and wanted to play with him. I had some free time, and I told him, so he helped in setting up the gig.
Louiz Banks: When Leni came to Mumbai, I was the lucky guy she wanted in her band for a concert. It was a great experience because she is a fabulous performer and a very sensitive composer and lyricist.
I met Mike with her, but I’ve been listening to him for many years now. He blows me away with his extraordinary virtuosity on the guitar! He is both fiery and lyrical, and his jazz-rock writing has most definitely influenced my own jazz-rock fusion work.
Is Leni influenced by Indian music in any way too?
Stern: Yeah! In fact, she’s learning Indian classical music these days and does a lot of stuff I can’t do, like all those different ragas. (Grins) It’s incredible how you can do so much with just one key.
Banks: Leni loves Indian music and is fascinated by our lyrical and modally-linear, spiritual approach to music. Our conversations generally revolved around the great Indian masters, evocative ragas and rhythms and spicy Indian food.You guys have worked on Banks’ album, Miles Davis from India.
Stern: Yeah, it was a great album! I loved the vocals on it and Louiz sounded great on it. But we couldn’t meet up for it, we recorded for it at different times.
Banks: Mike has always been among my favourite guitar players, and because of his long association with Miles Davis, he was the obvious choice for the album. As always, Mike delivered the goods brilliantly.
Was it easy to Indianise the album?
Banks: The idea was initiated by Yusuf Gandhi and Bob Belden, and I helped in implementing it by arranging Miles Davis’ music in a fusion context. It was difficult to put it together with ragas in mind, but also easy in a way, because the music of Miles is open-ended and linear.
I believe that fusion only works with musicians of a high calibre and an open mind, because you need to bend rules. It worked out beautifully in our case for the same reason. Bob Belden, my co producer, was incredible with his ideas. As it turned out, we got nominated for the Grammys. That was a sweet surprise.
Stern: Yeah, the way the album came together, it made perfect sense. I could relate to the album even though it was so unique. I like people trying different things. I started off as a rock and blues player, before I got into jazz. So when I write music, my fusion influences become a part of my sound.
Are collaborations an important aspect of jazz musicians?
Banks: Yes, definitely, because of the fact that today jazz is a universal
phenomenon. The nature of jazz is predominantly improvised, as opposed to written down music. Fresh and stimulating exchange of ideas from different cultures, add to the excitement of a jazz performance. Every country gives jazz a special character of its own, with its ethnicity.
Stern: Yeah, I dig improvisation in instrumental music. It’s great to perfect one thing, but it’s cool to check out stuff from all over the world. I lean towards that philosophy. My jazz music has a certain sound, which is a combination of the stuff I have grown up with. I try to learn from everything, especially from a country like India, which has some great music.
Mike, are you influenced by Indian music?
Stern: (Grins) How can you not dig Indian music? Every musician I know, in USA, is aware of Indian music now. It’s the next big thing. I’ve been checking it out from the ’60s, when everyone was listening to Ravi Shankar.
It’s got a vibe, and a strong, unique magic. I would love to work with the guys from Shakti, especially Zakir Hussain. In fact, even on my albums, I have used some Indian percussions, so that people will instantly say, ‘Oh, it’s got an Indian vibe’.
Are you satisfied with the number of upcoming jazz musicians?
Stern: Yeah, there are plenty of young kids in New York taking it up. Music never goes out of fashion and thankfully, there are lots of schools still teaching jazz. But yes, unfortunately, because of computers and social networking, live music and album sales have taken a hit. I’m sure it will come back though!
Banks: We need more youngsters to get into jazz in India. It needs exposure and support from the media and the government. Music institutions need to teach jazz. More venues and clubs should feature it, so that our youth become more sensitive to serious music, and realise there is more to music than Bollywood and pop.
Stern: I think listening is the key. You can always find stuff that inspires you. I started out by listening to jazz guitarists and then started hearing other instruments and tried to play those ideas on the guitar as much as I could. That’s how you become better musicians.
What can we expect at the concert?
Banks: Since Mike is here, it will definitely be a fantastic musical experience. It’ll be a mix of soulful ballads, searing jazz-rock fusion and uptempo jazz.