Fusing Indian traditions with jazz

Saxophonist and konnakol artist Arun Luthra will perform and give a master class April 21 and 22.
Saxophonist and konnakol artist Arun Luthra will perform and give a master class April 21 and 22. Submitted

Listen to composer, saxophonist and konnakol artist Arun Luthra and you will hear the solos and rhythmic drive of jazz, grounded in the music of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other masters. You also will hear his percussive vocalizations from the southern Indian (Carnatic) music tradition of konnakol.

The two traditions have common elements that Luthra said he tries to bring together. “The fascination with Indian music is not a new thing in the West,” Luthra said in a phone interview. (He mentions the Beatles’ and Coltrane’s interest in Indian classical music.) “The rhythmic side of classical music is my favorite part of it. ... I gravitated toward [his southern Indian Carnatic music tradition] because that’s what I love about it. It made natural sense to add that to the jazz tradition,” he said.

“I really strive for authenticity to anything I bring to the music,” Luthra said. Adding an Indian flavor, through use of instruments, is not difficult, but that approach alone superficial, he said. “I’ve really studied the Carnatic tradition” and he brings that into the jazz tradition.

Listeners will get to hear Luthra in concert, and participate in a class in konnakol. He will perform at Beyu Caffe April 21, with Durham pianist Ernest Turner, Kenny Phelps-McKeown on bass, and Kenny Grohowski on drums. On April 22, Luthra will teach a workshop at The Shed concentrating on how to use the rhythms and techniques of konnakol in the jazz tradition.

Prior musical knowledge is not necessary to attend the workshop, Luthra said. “If you play music, even if you don’t, come, because you’ll learn something.” The similarity in jazz and Indian music is that “they’re both oral traditions,” and that aspect of both musical styles extends to his teaching. “Whether you have a background in music or not, I can say something, and you can repeat it,” Luthra said.

Luthra was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. His father is Indian; his mother, British. Luthra heard music from different traditions growing up. “I come from a family that’s very artistically inclined. There was an amazing collection of recordings around the house,” he said. His father’s record collection included a lot of Indian classical music. His sister studied flute, and his mother took him to hear his first opera when he was young.

“I feel like I’m part of that group of people who was born to be a musician … and it almost didn’t matter what [style] it was,” Luthra said.

He teaches at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, where he also composes and performs. He has performed with a long list of musicians, among them saxophonists Billy Harper and Kenny Garrett, and singer Frankie Valli. Harper is “a profound influence on my approach to how I make music,” Luthra said. Drummer Charlie Persip also “was a big influence,” he said.

In Indian music, “I would say the deepest influences came from one-on-one masters” who taught him. Karaikudi Subramanian was an early teacher, along with Trichy Sankaran. Luthra also recently worked with V. Selvaganesh, a percussionist who has played with one of guitarist John McLaughlin’s Shakti organizations, Remember Shakti.

At Beyu Caffe, Luthra will be playing mostly original compositions, which he plans to compile in a future release. He also will be playing for the first time with Turner and Phelps-McKeown, a practice that is common in touring. Luthra often performs “with local rhythm sections. It’s been a great adventure to teach my music all over the world.” He describes the experience of playing music with other musicians as “a physical thing. One of the great thrills for me is playing with other musicians ... just that physical feeling of playing together.”

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1

Go and Do

WHAT: Saxophonist Arun Luthra’s Konnakol Jazz Project

WHEN: Friday, April 21, with 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. sets

WHERE: Beyu Caffe, 341 W. Main St., Durham

ADMISSION: $15. For information, visit www. beyucaffe.com

Go and Do

WHAT: Arun Luthra leads master class in Indian music rhythms in jazz

WHEN: April 22, 4 p.m.

WHERE: The Shed, 807 E. Main St., Durham

ADMISSION: General admission is $12. For information call 732-570-2935 or visit www.shedjazz.com.