The mention of Guruvayur, the 5,000-year-old temple town in Kerala is enough to remind one of the famous Guruvayur temple with its principle deity — a four-armed Krishna, standing and carrying a conch and the sudarshan chakra. So when that temple name becomes a moniker for the second movement of a Grammy-nominated album, one that melds Indian classical music with jazz and western classical music, it’s intriguing to say the least.
Sitar player Anoushka Shankar, jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa and an Indian album of bhajans created in Vrindavan aren’t the only names on this year’s Grammy shortlist. There is another Indian who will compete for the golden gramophone at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles on February 15 this year. San Francisco-based violinist David Balakrishnan, whose roots are in Kerala’s Palakkad, will be vying for a top spot in the Instrumental Composition category with his album Confetti Man.
“I imagined that a bluegrass fiddler would enter the temple and create a raga groove in a bhajan style. It’s a joyous experiment to say a story,” says Balakrishnan, 61, who is nominated alongside Indian origin saxophonist Mahanthappa in the same category along with American saxophonist Bob Mintzer, composer Rich DeRosa and trombone virtuoso Marsshall Gilkes.
The album has been played by a string quartet titled Turtle Island Quartet, founded by Balakrishnan 30 years ago and which blends elements of Indian classical music, jazz, western classical and bluegrass on European string instruments in an attempt to redefine art music. “I started the group as a way to play my own original music. In the western classical tradition it is very common to have a string quartet but we were unique since all four of us were improvising jazz musicians. My four food groups are Indian and western classical, jazz and bluegrass. It is important for me to search for a language that is both personal and universal, often blurring the line between musical traditions,” says Balakrishnan about the quartet. Other members of the quartet include violinist Mateusz Smoczynski, violist Benjamin von Gutzeit, and cellist Mark Summer.
Born to an Indian father and an American mother, Balakrishnan grew up listening to MS Subbulakshmi, Pt Ravi Shankar and Ut Alla Rakha apart from taking western classical violin lessons as a young boy. “Discovering this duality was interesting. My father was an early immigrant. He came here on a boat when India declared Independence. He got here and got excited about electrical engineering, stayed here, met my mother. It was a difficult time to be an Indian in the US in the ’50s but he stayed put. Music happened by default as I always heard it at home and was intrigued by the tunes and intricate rhythm structures,” says Balakrishnan, who graduated from UCLA with a bachelors. in music composition and violin and earned a masters degree in music composition at Antioch University West. He then founded the Turtle Island Quartet in 1985.
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“We have always been known for bridging the gap between classical and jazz. We were the first group to do it and find success at it, artistically and commercially. We were known to play jazz standards by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Underneath that we were also creating our original music. The current nomination is important to me because it’s original music,” says Balakrishnan, who has won two Grammys before. The last one was for Best Classical Crossover Album titled A Love Supreme: The Legacy Of John Coltrane in the year 2008. Talking about not pursuing Indian classical music, Balakrishnan says, “I didn’t want to half do Indian classical music because I wasn’t trained in it. So I decided to stick to my European training. But I studied Indian music more from the compositional side. For me, if you hear my music from an Indian standpoint, you may not spot much of Indian music. But if you are a westerner, you will spot more of it. I try to find just the right amount of influence,” says Balakrishnan. Confetti Man’s fiery riffs have already turned into a hot favourite among a lot of musicians.
“The current nomination matters. It isn’t just jazz. It’s an interesting way to present original music with a host of influences,” says Balakrishan. For his next project, Balakrishnan is working with a Carnatic classical violinist who is also a Mathematics professor at Kansas University.