The jazz aficionados of the country would relate to this picture of an artist I am trying to draw here. A bald man with his guitar, sans the theatrics, just immersed into his music which can range from folk, rock, jazz to even Brazilian and African. This guitar player who returned to India after spending 15 years in Los Angeles, is none other than the maestro Sanjay Divecha.
A teenaged Sanjay was learning the nuances of the sitar while he was getting inspired by the music of legends like Bhimsen Joshi, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd etc. Becoming a guitar player seemed to be a natural progression.
“During the time I was playing sitar, most of the music I was listening to was western folk, rock and blues. So when I was introduced to the guitar it was the natural choice,” said Sanjay.
The guitar player grew up on a dose of Indian classical, western classical, rock, pop and eventually settled on jazz. This was when he had started out, now it would be fairly difficult to bracket his music. Sanjay’s music has now diversified by ingraining the influences of multiple cultures.
The guitar player and his ensembles
Sanjay currently leads three ensembles, Secret, The Jazz Trio and MERKABA. Each has a personal identity and distinct sound. These ensembles have featured artists from various genres. While you have the classical vocals of Chandana Bala Kalyan in Secret, The Jazz trio has featured some brilliant artists. These include among others – Gino Banks and Adrian D’souza on drums, Karl Peters, Sheldon D’Silva and Abhinav Khokhar on bass, Anurag Naidu and the late Karan Joseph on organ. MERKABA has the brilliant singer-songwriter Vasundhara Vee, Sheldon D’silva and others.
“All the 3 ensembles were formed so I could compose and perform that music. Secret allows me to use the classical and folk traditions as well as the languages of India mixed with all my other global influences. It’s a coming together of everything I’ve learnt, studied and been inspired by. What’s given it an identity though is the ‘Indianness’ of it. While The Jazz trio is where I get to explore the guitar to its full extent. I love the space in a trio and it’s where I get to improvise a lot,” explained Sanjay.
”MERKABA was formed with a need to go back to my roots. I wanted to form an ensemble where the vocals would be sung in English. I also wanted to play a guitar sound which had an edge to it. Collaborating with Vasundhara Vee gave me a perfect opportunity to do this. She is not just an amazing singer but also writes great lyrics.”
The 35 year old ongoing journey
Creating and leading these ensembles has been a 35 year old journey for one of most distinguished guitar player in the country. Sanjay’s first introduction to jazz harmony was through the fusion music of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He was influenced by bands and artists like Weather Report, John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth to name a few.
“I then went back and listened to traditional stuff like Miles, Coltrane, Ellington etc,” quipped Sanjay.
It was the 15 years he spent in Los Angeles that has shaped and developed Sanjay as artist. In these years he picked up a variety of styles of music from Africa, Brazil, Latin America, gospel, jazz etc. The interaction with artists from different genres exposed a whole new musical dimension for him.
Recalling the days, Sanjay said,
“The 15 years I spent in Los Angeles were invaluable to my growth as a musician. Not only did I have a formal training in music but also became part of the musical fabric there.”
After returning, Sanjay incorporated the knowledge he earned in LA with his Carnatic music background. The pitch was fertile for the master composer and guitar player like him to explore and experiment. India was just waking up to global sounds.
“The common ground between the genres is the improvisation. While composing I did go back to studying both Carnatic and Hindustani music. I used concepts from both Indian and western on a compositional level,” quipped the master composer.
What is your vision behind composing a song? I asked Sanjay.
“Song ideas usually start with a small spark. For me it could be a bass line, chord progression, melody or just a rhythmic concept. After that it is putting in the time to expand the idea into a full- fledged composition,” explained Sanjay.
Jazz as the ‘niche’ genre
Bollywood music has always enjoyed mass appeal in India. Even the genres native to the country have not been able to cope up. The rest of the genres are often termed ‘niche’. To expect a genre native to the Americans to have a mass appeal in India is nonsensical. Jazz is one the ‘niche’ genre of music but it has a dedicated following. Like Sanjay, many other jazz musicians are still keeping the flame burning. It is a small community so it is tough to mainstream the genre.
“We have never been able to develop all the parallel streams of music necessary for it to be a vibrant music scene. The most important things are platforms for artists to play and perform. There are not enough platforms to play the music here in India. The music and the bands will not be able to develop a sound if the music cannot be played,” asserted Sanjay.