Navigating Shades of Grey

An experimental jazz outfit uses music to stay relevant while transforming Indian society

Firstpost print Edition

In March last year, Kolkata jazz guitarist and composer Bodhisattwa Ghosh was in the ICU battling a bacterial infection that almost took his life. It sent him back into dangerous health territory again in September. In his mind, though, he was still thinking of music.

The opening track to the band Bodhisattwa Trio’s The Grey Album — which released earlier this year — is called The Void. “It’s actually about what I felt when I was in the hospital. I didn’t know if I was going to come out of it,” Ghosh says. Written during his hospital stint, the guitarist put together handwritten notes and voice notes of melodies, basslines and drums. Once Ghosh had recovered, he presented The Void to his band members — keyboardist and synth bass player Arunava Chatterjee, aka Shonai, and drummer Premjit Dutta — at a rehearsal and they worked on it.

The sinister track swivels in and out of grooves and guitar leads, but retains the trio’s avant-garde and experimental treatment of jazz — one that includes baffling time signatures as well as explosive energy. In its third album, The Bodhisattwa Trio revels in raw sound, but also leans into post-production effects that you rarely hear from Indian bands, much less jazz acts. Ghosh says the music is always considered “abstract” but mentions that there is always an intention to have a message. “Whenever I write original music, it has to be about something. Even if it’s lyrical or non-lyrical, it represents a certain theme,” he says.

Their latest music video, for example, is Shame (Death of a Nation), which Ghosh says is about the difficulties and hurdles that come in the way of ordinary citizens. “As an Indian, and a complete minority, we see how political ethos is affecting our life in general, as an experimental jazz artist. I can see nothing but hurdles, obstacles, complete neglect and disinterest,” he says. Ushered in by the dirge-like piano of Shonai, the eerie track is punctuated by Ghosh’s droning guitars and on-the-edge drumming by Dutta. Thematically, Ghosh’s idea was to split the album into two parts [and then a bonus third segment featuring Cronos (The Final Visit) to tie in all their records] to show chaos to creation and then creation back to chaos, with conflict at the centre of it all. He says in his album press note: “Whether it is a single individual, or humanity as a whole, nothing can be defined by pure good or pure evil [black and white]. The mould of our very existence is one filled with conflicts, doubts and duality. Hence the name The Grey Album.”

The sparse but fuzzy third track, Degrees of Freedom, moves into lightheaded territory as it closes, being that transition track. “You won’t find any particular concrete head or melody in it. We’re moving independently in the system but the musical choices we’re making are completing the composition,” Ghosh says. American Dream, meanwhile, launches into bouts of futuristic jazz, drawing from electronic music and rock.

It might be difficult to believe at first, but the Bodhisattwa Trio can and has pulled off its sonic experimentations to wildly positive reception at recent India tour shows in New Delhi and Bengaluru. They did it despite living in different cities. “With Shonai moving to Delhi for his job, rehearsals were completely shut out. We did extensive homework, each of us. If you heard the album, you won’t be disappointed and if you buy the album, you won’t be disappointed with the live gig,” Ghosh says. Plus, the few shows they’ve played in South East Asia, including Kuala Lumpur’s premier jazz venue No Black Tie in March. In the audience for the show was American post-bop pianist Kirk Lightsey, who was scheduled to play two shows later in the week. The trio was understandably chuffed to meet a veteran like Lightsey. Ghosh says, “These kind of experiences are very important. The more we expose ourselves to incredible artistes like him, we get a better picture of where we stand with our music in the world – what to do with it and what not to do with it.”

The processes are already underway, partly because The Grey Album was released by Croatian label Intek Music but also due to the trio’s past European sojourns. Starting June 14, The Bodhisattwa Trio head out for a 25-day Europe tour, playing clubs and festivals in Germany, Poland, Croatia and Slovenia. They’re about 10 shows down performing new material and Ghosh says they’re “really feeling the music”. Ever the jazz musicians, things are going to shapeshift yet again. He says, “Now I feel the soundscape might change because we’ll start having our interpretations in the music.”

(Anurag Tagat is a Bengaluru-based music journalist and senior writer at Rolling Stone India)

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