Trilok Gurtu - East meets west in a heartbeat

Trilok Gurtu has had the trumpet on his mind a lot lately. The Mumbai-born percussionist, who has become famous for increasing gongs and shakers’ sonic possibilities by dropping them in a bucket of water, grew up in India with a perspective on how the trumpet should be played that is different from most western traditions.

For Gurtu, the trumpet is a vocal instrument. The brass bands that he heard on the streets and playing for weddings as a child were, he says, playing folk songs, with the trumpet taking the part of the lead voice. So it’s no surprise that Gurtu has gravitated again towards the Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu for his latest a group, a trio that also features the remarkable Cuban pianist Omar Sosa.
As well as joining Gurtu in this “band of bandleaders”, which tours Scotland from Monday, Fresu features on Gurtu’s latest album, Spellbound, where his style, informed by Italian singers and his jazz heroes alike, is complemented by trumpeters with the oriental approach such as Californian Ambrose Akinmusire and the Lebanese virtuoso Ibrahim Maalouf.

Spellbound is in part dedicated to yet another trumpeter, the late Don Cherry, who was the first musician to encourage Gurtu on his arrival in Europe in the early 1970s to pursue his dream of bringing his training in Indian classical music to jazz and other western musics.

“Don was very original and way ahead of his time,” says Gurtu. “A lot of people underestimated him because he was maybe a little eccentric but he knew a lot about Indian music at a time when most people in the West had really only heard of Ravi Shankar, and he really listened. He’d come up through the jazz scene but he was interested in music from all over the world, African music, even Scottish music. He knew that jazz wasn’t the only improvised music and it was partly that aspect of Indian and other kinds of music that attracted him.”

Gurtu shared Cherry’s musical wanderlust and it was his ability, not just to fit in effortlessly but to steer the music in unexpected, exciting directions that eventually led to him making his first big impression on this side of the world with the musical polymaths Oregon after their percussionist, Collin Walcott , died in a road crash in the 1980s. With his distinctive, crouching style of drumming, Gurtu has since gone on to create great grooves and an amazing rapport with guitarist John McLaughlin and light a fire under the Nordic cool of saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

Other collaborations have ranged from the Malian superstar Salif Keita to Annie Lennox and Gurtu’s own projects have seen him working with Weather Report’s founding keyboardist Joe Zawinul, guitarist Pat Metheny, and in his superb ‘massical’ adventure that brought classical and world music together, the Arke String Quartet.

He’d had some of the ideas he realised on Spellbound for some time but the stumbling block he kept coming up against was the western approach to instrumental playing.

“I tried some of the music on Spellbound with a big band, a jazz orchestra, but I couldn’t get the Indian flavour,” he says. “So I turned to Paolo Fresu, who I’ve known for a long time, and I asked Jan Garbarek about other trumpeters and he suggested Ibrahim Maalouf, who’s very different, very much from the oriental side, and we found a group of other trumpeters who could pay homage to their forebears such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. I’m really pleased with the way it turned out.”

He’ll tour the music from Spellbound later in the year but some of it is almost certain to figure in the Gurtu-Fresu-Sosa tour.

“We all bring music to the group and we’ve all played each other’s music before,” he says. “I’ve been to Cuba and I know a bit about the culture, although obviously not as much as Omar knows. What’s great about this group is that the music is different every time we go onstage and we have a lot of fun, not just among ourselves. We want the fun to carry into the auditorium too.”

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