"I am not saying that improvised music only represents that past. For me it as as relevant as any other genre today, because no matter what style of music you play, it involves a certain level of improvisation and at a very basic level as humans, we improvise all the time."
Spending his formative years in a house full of paintings, music records and photographs, it’s no surprise that Tarun Balani took to the arts. Right from Carnatic Music to ABBA, Balani grew up surrounded by a diverse range of music thanks to his parents and artistic grandfather. From an early age he appreciated and enjoyed different forms of music, but back then he never thought of a career in the field--"I actually wanted to be a cricketer. What a shocker!” He took piano lessons as a teenager but wasn’t really impressed with the ease of it. He’d follow his brother Aditya into the music room at their school after cricket practice just to bunk classes and it was on one of these days that he first heard one of his seniors playing the drums. From that moment onwards, he was completely fascinated by the instrument. “We had a blue fiber-glass drum set, and man, it looked so good! The power of the beat drew me in forever to the drum set.”
Fast forward to today and you have Balani, the musical prodigy and graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music. A one-time member of the band Advaita, formed by Balani with his brother, Suhail Yusuf Khan, Anindo Bose, Romit Gupta (Them Clones) and Abhishek Mathur, Balani tells us it was a very tough decision for him to quit the band to go and study music at Berklee. “At that point, studying music and working on my craft was my top priority,” he says. The Collective was formed during his final year at Berklee when he had started writing and composing his own music. Finding a group of like-minded musicians, The Collective comprises of Tiziano Bianchi, Joshua Crumbly, Sharik Hasan, Alex Pinto, and Balani himself, and together, they’ve garnered respect and praise from the international art world for their 2013 record ‘Sacred World’ and Live at Teatro Bismantova, Italy. The tremendously talented group is now ready with their latest work for release, titled ‘Dharma,’ and we got a chance to talk to Balani and get a glimpse inside the maverick musician's mind.
The music on the upcoming album is improvised music, as Balani explained to us, which encompasses a “wide spectrum of music, ranging from Bach to John Coltrane, and beyond. We are drawing from various periods of music and quite a lot from the improvised music that came about in the late 50s and early 60s in the United States.” It’s not only music from the US that inspired this style but he’s also heavily influenced by the Hindustani and Carnatic music in India.
How improvised music works is that there are certain written and fixed parts of a song that The Collective prepares and rehearses, but “a large part of our expression and creativity comes of interpreting those written and fixed parts and improvising over them,” says Balani. So the theme, melody and the harmonic progression remains constant, but how they interpret it changes each time they play it. “For me, improvised music is really exciting to play and I absolutely love this form of music...the reason I am drawn to it is because there is no restriction in it. You can be an improviser and play improvised music even when you’ve just started playing an instrument and it can be as simple as as complex as you like it to be.”
Above all, it is Balani’s life and experiences that inspires him the most, and that’s what he tries to communicate through his art. “It is very important to cultivate good relationships and experience life to be able to create good music. That’s how I look at it. Of course I draw inspiration from various styles of music, ranging from Debussy to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Art is a huge inspiration for me, and recently, I’ve been studying the works of a great Indian artist from the 80s, Brij Mohan Anand.”
"I had conceptualized the record in November 2014 during my previous visit to New York to play for Alex Pinto’s group; the significance and the title 'Dharma' only came alive for me a little bit later. I got married, and we moved into our new house, which is where I actually started writing the music for Dharma. The album almost marked some important moments in my life, and tells this story which you will hear in the pieces on it," says Balani. "This album is really special for me because during the writing process I really pushed through some of my compositional limitations and succeeded to craft a very detailed blueprint of the music I was hearing in my head."
While genres like EDM, Indie and Folk have slowly gained popularity among the masses, comparatively, Jazz isn’t very popular in India, more so among the younger generation of listeners. But there is a lot that it has to offer and give young listeners that other styles cannot. “I guess it’s mainly due to the misrepresentation of this music and promoters not knowing or understanding the music,” Balani muses. Back in the 30s and 40s, Jazz and Big Band music was the dance/popular music of that time and through the years as everything has gotten digitised, it seems that music has too and according to Balani, “it is up to the promoters to showcase the music and what you put out there is what gets attention.” Every style of music has something very unique to offer, ideally, all kinds of music would just be considered music without any genres, but unfortunately that’s not what it’s like. All of the world’s most famous musicians have been influenced by a style completely different than that which they practice and play, the example that Balani gives us is of Paul McCartney who was heavily influenced by improvised music and it did bleed into the music of the Beatles.
“Jazz and improvised music has had a huge influence on the popular music of today and I would say it is worth understanding and studying it to be aware of the history of music. Having said that, I am not saying that improvised music only represents that past. For me, it is as relevant as any other genre today, because no matter what style of music you play, it involves a certain level of improvisation, and at a very basic level as humans we improvise all the time.”
'Dharma' will be available on iTune/Apple Music on July 24. Click here for more information about Tarun Balani and The Collective's work.