The Key Flute is the western cousin of our very own bansuri. A flutist can mesmerise the audience with this simple instrument whether it is in the Indian or western avatar. The bansuri is built for the Indian system of music which is in some way linear because it explores the notes and combinations of the raag. In the western system the idea of harmonies or changing the key centres is there. Unless in jazz or blues, from which a lot of popular music is borrowed, where the key centre can change. The key flute helps in the rapid shifting of the centres. That is why the western system is called vertical as well as horizontal.
To imagine a flute in a jazz setup was unthinkable at a point. Jazz and blues are about the big band sound. The flute, though melodic, is minuscule in comparison. But a young man from Bangalore had other ideas.
A budding cricketer who had to cut short his sporting career and somehow the flute happened to him. The now accomplished flutist, Rajeev Raja, was presented a 2 rupees worth bamboo flute by a friend and was asked to jam with his band.
“It was providence that I stumbled upon the flute when I had to quit cricket. At the time, I used to play the mouth organ for fun. I lost cricket but I can play the flute till I have air in my lungs,” smiled the flutist.
An early morning meeting at Rajeev’s office had all the discussions about music one can expect. Right from his obsession with Jethro Tull to incorporating Carnatic vocals in his new setup with jazz being the binder.
Transition from a Cricketer to a flutist
Unlike most musicians, Rajeev is neither from a musical family nor did he start music early in life but his house was buzzing with multiple genres of music. Only after his cricketing aspirations were cut short, Rajeev started playing the flute at 17 years of age. During college Rajeev would jam with a lot of different musicians. He formed a blues band and later a jazz rock band. Since then experimentation has become his focal point. The flutist would try to adapt the sounds of legends like Chick Corea, Miles Davis in his music.
“It just happened. I just started incorporating the flute into jazz compositions. There was nobody to teach me the western flute. Jazz did not have many flute players so I had to seek out teachers to learn. My biggest influence however was Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull. You can hear a lot of his style in my music,” said Rajeev.
Apart from Anderson, Hubert Laws is the flutist whose sound enamoured Rajeev. He would imitate his style and technique while listening to his music. In the initial days of any learning, imitation is very important. This is before one discovers their own tone, approach and style. Rajeev did the same. He would imitate the music of great flutists while practicing. Though he had learnt playing the flute in Carnatic style, it was before he moved to the key flute.
Experimenting and exploring
The musical atmosphere in his house helped him shape an interest in varied genres. His influences are not limited to jazz, he is also a fan of Indian classical, rock, rock and roll, swing, blues and fusion music. These influences are pretty obvious in his music.
“Today I am trying to create a lot of different soundscapes with the flute. Under the Rajeev Raja Combine label I am looking to promote a lot of different genres that I have played through the years. My other project, Jazztronica is like back to the future. It is about taking jazz, rock and electronica and putting it all together. We are experimenting with having a live programmer and sequencer on stage,” explained Rajeev.
“The word fusion is much abused. I wanted to create something which blended my influences organically. My projects are a representation of me. I would say I am a musician who expresses himself using the principle of jazz, blues, swing, improvisations, soloing etc. Therefore the concept of Indo jazz. Though it is not restricted to just that.”
At this point I told him,“I am sure not many purist will like your idea of Jazztronica!”
“Absolutely correct!” laughed the flutist.
Music for expression
Jazz is an ever evolving genre. It has never found commercial acceptance in India. Jazz was always a step child. Every music label’s head honcho would listen to it, attend gigs but did not want to be associated with it business wise. We have accepted Latino, K-Pop and other genres but somehow not jazz. It has always been niche in India. The flutist does not consider himself as an out and out jazz musician. He believes, to be a true jazz musician you have to live in the ethos, culture and express those thoughts.
“I borrow a lot of the principles from jazz. Music is not just about technique but about expression as well. All the technique in the world is useless if you cannot express yourself. I believe the purpose of music is to not impress but to express. One can get swayed away by the gallery. At times artists do not spend time practicing and the extreme is when one gets too caught up with the techniques. I call this ‘pyro-technique’. When this happens the music becomes flat and does not touch the soul. Music requires emotional expression too. The purpose of my music is to touch people,” asserted Rajeev.