Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
Some artists incessantly grumble about the state of the music business, while others just keep creating music and then figure out ways to get it to fans. After numerous releases on Indian labels, pianist Richard X Bennett will make his U.S. label debut on Oct. 6 with two simultaneous releases on Ropeadope Records.
One is a piano trio album, What Is Now, recorded with bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Alex Wyatt. The program includes nine of Bennett’s compositions and an arrangement of the standard “Over The Rainbow.”
The other album, Experiments With Truth, is a quintet disc with Bennett, Armstrong, and Wyatt joined by Matt Parker (tenor and soprano saxophone) and Lisa Parrott (baritone and alto sax).
The recording sessions for the albums were held on two consecutive days at Peter Karl Studio in Brooklyn. Bennett describes the trio disc as leaning toward “groove jazz,” while the quintet album, which is influenced by Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics, continues his long exploration of Indian raga music in a jazz context.
Bennett launched this exploration with his 2009 solo album Ragas On Piano (Dreams Entertainment). He expanded the instrumentation with the late bassist Gaku Takanashi and tabla master Naren Budhkar on 2011’s Raga & Blues (Mystica Music). His 2013 album, New York City Swara, was picked up by Times Music, India’s biggest label. For that disc, he collaborated with Takanashi, Budhkar, Carnatic violinist Arun Ramamurthy and drummer Michael Wimberly. In 2015 Bennett released the duo album Mumbai Masala with Hindustani vocalist Dhanashree Pandit Rai.
Now he has pushed the concept even further on Experiments With Truth, which he calls “Mingus meets raga in the 21st century.”
Bennett (with his trio and quintet) will celebrate the release of both albums with an Oct. 11 concert at Rockwood Music Hall, located at 196 Allen Street in New York. (For more info, visit the venue’s website.)
Baritone saxophonist Claire Daly sat down with Bennett in New York to discuss his artistic journey. Edited excerpts are below.
Tell us how you got started as a musician.
My first concert was Abdullah Ibrahim. I went to this hall at 15 years old, and thought, “Where’s the other guy?” because it was billed as ”Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand.” Then he plays a little flute, shakes a stick and starts playing the piano.
I memorized everything he played. I went home and started playing his music by ear. A few years later, I heard the records. I wasn’t far off, and some of it had become my own thing. Sometimes, if you learn something poorly, you will become an original.
What did you do musically when you first arrived in New York in the 1990s?
I played Greek music in a Greek funk-rock band, jazz, a lot of blues. I sent this blues guy a tape for a tour and I was hired. But on the tape I was playing in the key of C. It was a guitar band, mostly in the key of E. The first time I played with him was for about 2,000 people in Switzerland. By the time I was really good at it, I was playing for five people in Brooklyn.
Blues are like the raga because there’s a scale, but if you just play the scale it doesn’t sound like the blues. You can’t run up and down the scales to play music. Some people do, but it’s about finding the soul of the music within these limitations.
You’ve spent a lot of time in India, and you’ve released numerous albums on Indian labels. Tell us about your experiences there.
I went to India because my girlfriend was studying Indian music and singing jazz there. I met Dhanashree, an Indian classical singer who suggested we do some concerts together. I picked up knowledge and interest as I went along. I said I would go back to India if I never had to play any Western music, because I didn’t like how the musicians played it there.
I made the first record of ragas on piano for an Indian label. I didn’t really want people to know about it but word got out and I still do it, playing with Indian musicians in Brooklyn.
The last time I went to India, I got very sick and didn’t want to go back. Now what I do is very much a memory of what Indian music is. For five or six years, that was what I listened to.
Tell us about your two new albums on Ropeadope.
The trio CD is called What Is Now.
Now is always gone. What is now? It’s never now. Everything [on the album] is an original [composition] except “Over the Rainbow,” which is an homage to Harvey Keitel. There’s this 1970s movie, Fingers, where [Keitel portrays a character who’s both] a killer and a piano player who likes doo-wop.
[For the quintet album], I asked Alex Wyatt, “Who is the craziest sax player you know?” He said Matt Parker. Matt came over and in 30 seconds I knew we had a band. I also had Adam Armstrong and Lisa Parrott.
Not in a million years would I say that Experiments With Truth is an Indian record, but [that’s] the background of it. I went to Buddhist caves in India to meditate. Two days later, in Mumbai, it was very noisy and I thought, “It’s good to meditate, but how do you do it when you’re surrounded by chaos?”
I wrote a song called “Say Om 108 Times.” When you chant Om, you do it 108 times. You’ll hear the horns doing the Om. It’s the chaos of the city, but there’s a spiritual element. The quintet album [title] is based on Gandhi’s autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth.
Your clothes and overall sense of style make a strong statement about your personality.
I’ve always thought that the piano was a dud when you watch it because people are looking at the back of your head. The trio album cover is a picture of the back of my head.
I’m a colorful dresser. I like people to have something to look at. I like the colors and it gives people joy. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a flannel shirt—offstage or on.
We’re not playing pop music. Do what you can to invite people in and say, “This is gonna be a good time,” not “Take this suffering because it’s supposed to be good for you.” I like people to come in and think, “Oh, this may be fun.” They won’t even notice that the musical ideas might be more complicated than what they’re used to.
It’s showbiz. When I pay money [to go to a show], I want to be entertained. I don’t have any problem with that at all. DB
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