Funk from the east: Trilok Gurtu

by Larry Birnbaum

Down Beat, January 1, 1994

Musically, the world is his stage. "We're just trying to say that music is one," says percussionist extraordinaire Trilok Gurtu. "It's not West and East anymore; it's gone universal. It's possible to play with anybody, if you are open and you adapt." The Bombay-born, Hamburg-based Gurtu is best known for his tenure as the late Collin Walcott's replacement in the group Oregon and for his supersideman stint with John McLaughlin's electro-acoustic trio. But in the last few years he's stepped into the solo spotlight, recently releasing his third album, Crazy Saints, which features Pat Metheny, Joe Zawinul, and Gurtu's mother, vocalist Shobha Gurtu. "For me," he says, "this record represents a very egoless experience from all the participants. Everybody was so giving, and that's what the record is about--the cooperation between all the musicians."
Asked whether his style should be classified as fusion or world music, Gurtu replies: "It's very hard to categorize not only my music but the music of anybody who is trying to do something different. I think it's the experience that you have gathered from everywhere. In my experience, I gathered a lot from Africa, South India, jazz, Jimi Hendrix, Cream. I heard everything in Bombay--Motown, Otis Redding, Sly Stone."
On Crazy Saints, Gurtu characteristically blends elements of jazz, rock, and classical music--both Indian and European--to create a variety of atmospheric textures and moods. "Manini," for example, features the remarkable interplay of Metheny and Shobha Gurtu. "My mother is singing through changes," says Trilok. "This is very rare. Not many Indian musicians of her caliber have done this. And Pat complements my mother in such a different way, in his own way and not in an Indian way. I never told Pat what to do. I just said, 'I want you to play like Pat.' And he did such an amazing job."
"The Other Tune," one of two duets between Gurtu and Zawinul, sounds like a well-rehearsed performance by longtime musical partners. In fact, Zawinul testifies: "It was our first soundcheck, just to get acquainted. I had never heard him live, and I had never met him before. We met at about five o'clock on a Saturday afternoon, and around 7:30 we just sat down and played for the first time ever. And from beginning to end, 'The Other Tune' is exactly what came out of that first meeting. For some funny reason, when we did our little breaks and stuff, we always came out at the same time."
The album's material is by Gurtu and pianist Daniel Goyone, with the exception of Zawinul's improvised compositions and one traditional tune, "Tillana." "'Tillana' is a South Indian song about a century old," says Gurtu. "But it's quite funky for that time, and I love it because it's so close to jazz. Daniel said we should rearrange it and make it a little bit beboppish, so he put it together with the chords. For me, it's like a funk rhythm, but this is classical Indian drumming. And I put in the cello and bass clarinet, because I love Western classical music. I like Bartok very much."
The main attraction, of course, is Gurtu's amazing arsenal of percussion: a unique assemblage of Western drums and cymbals, Indian tablas, and exotic small instruments that range from a gong that's dipped into a water bucket to a pair of smooth stones gleaned from a sushi bar. Rubbing the stones together, Gurtu mimicks the chirping of insects; he tosses in a small shaker and a bird call, and--voila!--it's the sound of a rice paddy. Some of his most remarkable percussive tricks are done by mouth, a technique he learned as a teenager when he got a job dubbing Indian movie soundtracks. "We had to do the sound effects--horses, trains, lions, all kinds of things."
In live performance, Gurtu's body language is no less impressive. Standing, kneeling, crouching, or sitting cross-legged on a rug, he scurries among the precisely scattered array of instruments, switching effortlessly from traps to tablas to temple blocks. "I was playing in London," he recalls, "and a reviewer said he was waiting to see where the drummer was, because I was on the floor, and no one could see me. But my setup just came from having nothing. I never had enough money in India to own a drum set, so I made my own. Actually, so many people play the drum kit better than me that I thought I should find something of my own, and that's what I did."
Now 42, Gurtu began studying tablas at five, inspired by a percussion-playing older brother. His father's father was a sitar player, his mother's mother a singer and dancer. His own mother is a prominent singer of thumri music, a semi-classical North Indian style. "It's also based on dancing," says Gurtu. "In India, a big part of playing the drums is how to accompany the dancer. That's why I loved James Brown, doing all those steps. But I heard James Brown later. We never had the facilities that the younger generation has now, so it was a struggle just to hear somebody's records. If somebody had gone abroad and brought back a new record, I took a train to hear it.
"When I was young, I earned money backing singers, and when I was about 16 I started working in movies. I also worked in five-star hotels; that's when I heard [John] Coltrane and Hendrix and everything. I came across the record Coltrane Plays The Blues, and Elvin Jones knocked me out. At 20 or 22 I went to Paris with a progressive group, Waterfront. I used to play Hendrix tunes on tabla, but nobody gave a damn." Back in Bombay, Gurtu played the Jazz Yatra Festival with Charlie Mariano. "Charlie was the first Western musican I played with."
In 1977 Gurtu traveled to New York with Indian pop singer Asha Bhoshle. "I loved the music and the positive competition--that hunger and enthusiasm for music --but I couldn't stand the one-upmanship, so I left and went to Germany. I played drums and tabla with a rock group there, but the money was very bad; so I went to Sweden and worked with Don Cherry, and through Don Cherry I studied Ornette Coleman's music." He went on to work with Archie Shepp, Jan Garbarek, Philip Catherine, Shankar, Gil Evans, Airto Moreira, and Paul Bley, and recorded with Catherine, Shankar, Mariano, Bley, and Barre Phillips.
After a year or two in Europe, Gurtu moved to Woodstock, New York, to teach at Karl Berger's Creative Music Studio. "That's how I met Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Nana Vasconcelos, and Collin Walcott," he says. "I met Collin, but I didn't know anything about Oregon. I didn't even know that he played with them or what they were playing. Somehow it never interested me." Walcott mentioned Gurtu as his possible successor in the group, and after he was killed in a 1984 car accident, the casual suggestion came eerily true. "People are still moved by that," says Gurtu, "but it's tiring after a while. All these questions--the fans and the friends coming over--it makes you feel this paranoia. I get like, 'How long am I going to have to listen to this?"'
In 1988, John McLaughlin, having seen Gurtu perform with Charlie Mariano at a festival in Germany, invited him to join his trio, which at different times included bassists Jeff Berlin, Kai Eckardt, and Dominique DiPiazza. "We started off acoustic," says Gurtu, "but we couldn't get enough volume on stage, so after a while, John put a synth in the guitar. I remember it was in Ft. Worth; and wow, the whole music changed after that. With John, I could really bite into the drums. That was good, because I could play drums and percussion and a little tabla with John, and with Oregon more tabla and percussion and less drums. I also did some composing with them, and [Oregon guitarist] Ralph Towner helped me to arrange the chords. But I had to stop playing with Oregon when I played with John, because I couldn't do two things at the same time."
Shortly before joining McLaughlin, Gurtu had recorded his first solo album, Usfret, an open-ended session where only the percussion parts were written. "I did Usfret with Don Cherry, Ralph Towner, L. Shankar, Jonas Hellborg, my mother, and Daniel Goyone, who has been my musical brother for six or seven years," he says. "I took Indian themes and experimented with them." Living Magic, a more structured album, was released in 1991, featuring Jan Garbarek on saxophone and Nana Vasconcelos on percussion, along with an Indian veena, African kora, and a cello.
Crazy Saints, recorded in the spring of 1993, is Gurtu's most ambitious effort yet. "Normally, on a record you just play, play, play, but I didn't want to do that," he says. "I wanted to say something with the music--composing, not drumming. Drumming is one part of music; harmony is one part of music; and I wanted to put all these elements together. When I started composing, it was just like natural improvisation to me, and then it started building up. I really put a lot of effort into this record. I had to stop playing with John, so I could focus. I was getting all these ideas, so I would take my cassette recorder and go for a walk and sing the whole time. I would come home and listen to it; and you know, when you play it back, you think, 'Somethign is missing there.' So I played the cassette for Daniel [Goyone], and he said, 'Good stuff, man. Let's rearrange it.' But I didn't put myself in the forefront; I was just trying to learn."
To flesh out the forefront, Gurtu recruited Metheny and Zawinul. "I've known Pat for quite a while," he says, "but I never thought we would play together. Pat invited me to his concert when he played in Hamburg, and his manager played me his latest album, where he's playing with Indonesian and Cambodian singers. And I said, 'Oh, man, he loves this'; so I called him. And he said, 'Trilok, if your mother is there....' He likes vocals. So it was a great honor for me that he came. He's a very lovely person, and he told me he has a lot of respect for my work."
The rest of the album was already complete when Zawinul signed on. "We just knew each other from the telephone," says Gurtu. "We had wanted to play together for years, but it never came about. But this time I was supposed to do four concerts in August, and I just said, I want to have Joe, so I called him. At first he thought I just wanted him on the tour, but then I told him I wanted to record a duet with him, and he got excited. I played him the other pieces we had already recorded, and he could see what else we needed. And it was all improvised. We just played, and it was so easy, I couldn't believe it. He was so nice and cooperative, and he was really pushing me. I didn't expect all that. We also got along on tour. Besides playing music, we went out to eat and had a little schnapps; so it was fun--not just working and sitting on an airplane."
As Zawinul tells it: "I saw a video he did with John McLaughlin; and after that, I wanted to play with him. He had this forward drive that I liked--it was my beat--and I liked the way he set his drums up. He is a fantastic musician, and playing with him was really a great experience. We did four concerts--Sardinia, Calabria, Switzerland, and Modena, Italy--and it really clicked. We had a wonderful rapport, and next year we're going to play in America; I'm going to do the summer festival season with him as a duet. I want to find those master musicians who are not just limited, and Trilok is a master musician."