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Ranjit Barot’s Space Jazz Theory

The Mumbai-based drummer on his debut studio album Bada Boom featuring a star line-up including John McLaughlin

Lalitha Suhasini May 31, 2011
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Photo: Aneesh Bhasin

When British travel and science writer Bill Bryson described how the universe came to be “in about the time it takes to make a sandwich” in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, he didn’t know it would inspire a jazz composition named ”˜T=0,’ after the time zero theory. Bryson found a kindred spirit in drummer Ranjit Barot, who lapped up Bryson’s “fun with science” project and fashioned a concept for his debut album Bada Boom. “I’m fascinated by the concept of Indian Vedas and deep space. If I were a billionaire. I’d buy that ticket to space,” says the 52-year-old composer completely taking us by surprise with this confession, when we meet him at Nirvana, his South Mumbai studio.

Barring a heavy wood-panelled door, the studio has a nondescript façade, squeezed between a row of garages. Barot tells us how he shut himself away in the studio for a week jamming with Bengaluru-based guitarist Amit Heri, jazz pianist Harmeet Manseta and Chennai flautist Palakkad Sreeram before he came up with the album. “The jam was almost like a workshop that gave us ideas to begin with,” he says. One of them was to fuse the melody line of ”˜Omana Penne,’ a traditional Malayalam lullaby on the track ”˜T=0.’

Just as Bryson attempted to bridge the gap between the man on the street and scientists, Barot tried to link Indian classical music and jazz. Not that it hadn’t been done before. While most compositions include some familiar music structures that you’ve heard at Indian jazz fusion concerts, this album’s biggest strength is its accessibility. Barot’s commercial sensibilities thanks to composing, arranging and performing for mainstream film scores for over two decades now, have lent a cinematic appeal to Bada Boom. Add to that some generous solos to a stellar line-up of Indian (Zakir Hussain, U Srinivas among others) and international artists (percussionist Pete Lockett, prolific saxophonist Tim Garland known for his collaborations with Chick Corea, guitarist Wayne Krantz and Scott Kinsey on keyboards) and the label (Abstract Logix, a reputed name in jazz circles) was ready to push the record onto the shelves.

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But Barot was waiting for guitar legend John McLaughlin to be a part of the album. Barot first met McLaughlin briefly at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where the guitarist performed with Indian percussion guru Trilok Gurtu and bassist Kai Eckhart. Barot’s big moment arrived when he shared stage with McLaughlin at the annual all-day concert ”˜Homage to Abbaji’ organised by Zakir Hussain in memory of his father, the late tabla maestro Ustad Alla Rakha Khan’s. “Johnji’s been my hero forever. I got an opportunity to play a little with him and grabbed it. And I think he liked what he heard,” says Barot. Incidentally, there’s a track titled ”˜Supernova’ on Bada Boom which is a tribute to Abbaji and features a stirring saxophone solo by Garland. “When a star or a sun dies, it releases the energy of one billion suns. That’s what Khansaab is to us. He’s still illuminating our lives. He was like a saint. I was very fortunate to have spent some time with him,” says Barot.

The drummer’s journey with McLaughlin – who clearly has a soft spot for the cannonball percussion style that both Zakir and Barot are known for – peaked when he was invited to play on his album Floating Point that released in 2008. If you’ve watched Barot live, you’d agree that his fire-bellied live performance with characteristic hard beats isn’t always impressive, although Barot managed to brilliantly channel the force in his studio album. He explains how he works his drum kit: “You gotta be just a little pissed off. In a nice way, not in an unhappy way. When you’re on your instrument, you gotta be like this is my turf. You do not fuck with me here.”

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The drummer admits with humility that he was unsure whether ”˜Singularity,’ the track from Bada Boom he mailed McLaughlin would land up in the bin or impress him. “I knew Johnji can let you down gently but would definitely make no bones telling you if a song wasn’t worth his while. And I gave him an exit route in my mail. When I didn’t get a reply from him, I thought he’s not gonna do it, and probably thought it’s shit. But he got back,” says Barot. The drummer recalls the reply from McLaughlin with a sense of relief even today, “He had gone skiing with his family which explained why he heard the song later. He’d said: ”˜It’s very interesting.’ For me, that was a good start. And he mailed me a blistering solo for the track.”

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