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Amyt Datta Goes Acoustic for Sparkling New Experimental Jazz Album ‘Red Plant’

The Kolkata guitar ace spent three years piecing together songs in remembrance of friends, history-makers and other moods

Anurag Tagat Dec 28, 2021

Amyt Datta live in 2016. Photo: Margub Ali

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Seasoned Kolkata-based guitarist and composer Amyt Datta draws from a myriad of influences across styles and regions on his new solo album Red Plant. Underscored by his inimitable jazz playing, there’s a meditative as well as playful energy to Datta which comes through across seven tracks.

Unraveled as pieces that average at the six and seven-minute mark, Datta is joined by Arinjoy Sarkar on acoustic guitar, Aakash Ganguly helming electric bass and go-to drummer-producer and percussionist Jivraj Singh. Red Plant sees the group wander off into a different territory compared to Datta’s previous, experimental, electronic and electric records such as Ambiance de Danse (2013), Pietra Dura (2015) and Amino Acid (2016).

The guitarist of formative Indian rock acts such as Skinny Alley and Shiva – and later on, the shapeshifting band PINKNOISE – talks to Rolling Stone India about the making of Red Plant and influences behind songs like “Yusra” and the poignant album closer “Somewhere… I Will See You Again.” Excerpts:

What led you to make Red Plant an acoustic record?

I’ve been playing guitar for a long time and I always loved the sound of the acoustic anyway. I’ve been doing other albums, but playing acoustic seriously for many years, alongside the electric, of course. Electric and acoustic are from the same family but each one has got its own sentiment and vibe.

I like nylon strings on an acoustic, but this album was recorded with steel strings. It’s got its own sentiment. When you’re writing, you have to hear and understand those sentiments and present your craft with that in mind. It’s quite emotionally hooking for me as a guitarist.

How did the lineup of Arinjoy, Aakash and Jiver come together for this album?

I’ve been playing with these musicians for many years now. I’ve played concerts with them – or at least used to, I’ve not been playing in the last one and a half years due to the pandemic – they knew the material. I play with Jiver on all the projects I have; it’s only him on drums. It was kind of easy to get it going. They get the vibe of what I’m trying to say, instrumentally and concept-wise. They hear me out and understand what I’m trying to play. In fact, Arinjoy is my student, so he grew up listening to my talks or whatever and classes. He knows my sensibilities.

You mentioned Red Plant was recorded over three years. Did you have everyone in the room or was this being done remotely due to the pandemic?

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I kind of recorded the album on my own in my bedroom, just with a click track. I just imagined the band sort of playing. I played some backing tracks just to get inspired. I recorded my parts separately on my own. I think Akash played second and Arinjoy played after that. Strangely, Jiver played drums last but he’s a master of that. You can’t tell he’s played last. He’s incredible that way.

What was it like to record remotely? Would you have preferred to have everyone in the room?

Well, music is meant to be played together. But because of the pandemic, we don’t have a choice. We had to do it this way. If you work hard and keep your mind focused, you can do what you set out to achieve. Especially in music – the kind of music I’m trying to play, that too not in Bombay and in Kolkata – it kind of looks like it’s out of the map of the media and… whatever [laughs]. If you stick by your guns, though, you can get it out.

I’ve been writing these tunes for a long time. They were inside me and wanted to come out. I felt, ‘This is my chance, let me do it anyway.’

There’s a melancholic, seemingly downbeat side to this album. What informed the prominent mood of Red Plant?

There are two ways of answering this. The overall vibe of acoustic guitars – especially in this kind of music – I’m in love with this European/Mediterranean, kind of mixed style… little bit Indian jazz. I love that zone. It’s kind of romantic yet sophisticated, you know? That’s one part of it. That’s the overall blanket over the music.

Each tune, if you notice the titles, they project a story. That’s the sentiment that I kind of followed as I was writing. When you’re playing instrumental music… if you have words, you can say, ‘I love you, I hate you’ and get it right away, but in instrumental music, you’re hoping they understand the language you’re speaking. It’s not the case every time.

If you take a song like “Yusra,” for example, that’s dedicated to the girl Yusra Mardini. She’s a Syrian, and in the war, she fled the country with her sister. She swam across the Aegean Sea because her boat failed. For three hours, she was in the water. That was a dedication to her efforts. It’s got that dark question… like the intro sort of asks the question, ‘Why is this happening?’

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If everyone says god exists – I don’t believe in god anyway – then where is he or she or whoever it is? All these questions arrive and the craft kind of helps me put that message across.

What about “Somewhere… I Will See You Again”?

It is about three of my best friends who passed away. One was my brother, who was a musician, Monojit ‘Kochu’ Datta. He was one of the best Cuban/Latin American percussion players this country has ever seen, in my mind. Authentic.

Jivraj’s parents were my best friends, Gyan and Jayashree Singh. That tune is kind of dedicated to them. I hope wherever they are… one has to die and hopefully we meet up and really have a band together and play again.

For an instrumental record, there are quite a few styles heard across the songs. What informs that?

When I was growing up, I was playing in millions of bands and traveling across the country. In many different styles, too. Whatever caught my fancy, I started working on it. To me, it’s kind of like a broth, a soup, you know? So whatever sentiment I picture in my head sonically, because of this whole exploration of different styles and studying them over the years – through rhythm or harmony or whatever – I try to bring it all out from that broth.

Whether it’s pop, jazz or Indian classical or African folk, each one has got its own beauty and taste. It’s coming from that zone, really.

Are you keen to take this live? Are there any live shows in the works?

It’s opening up a bit now. I’m hoping to play as soon as possible. Traveling is a bit of a scene, of course, because you know how it is in India. They [organizers] don’t want to fly you… back in the day, we used to do it like kings. We would go, fly, stay and get paid. It was fantastic. It was party time. But whatever it is, show or no show, pandemic or no pandemic, I’m going to carry on doing what I’m doing. That’s the only inspiration I have, not to rely on the outside world in too many ways. [laughs]

Does that mean there’s more material you’re working on?

Yes, I’ve already written out an electric album for a trio. So I’ll start recording soon.

Hear ‘Red Plant’ on Spotify, Apple Music and JioSaavn.

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