George Brooks: Global Conversations
AAJ: How have you evolved as a musician since Lasting Impression?
Terry Riley and George Brooks
GB: I hope I have evolved a lot, although sometimes I'm surprised at how much better the first album is than what I thought of it at the time. I've learned a lot about rhythm and how to be comfortable playing with ferociously-talented drummers, which can be intimidating when you play a melodic instrument. I'm still trying to understand the balance between melody and rhythm, and I keep learning more. This can be a good and a bad thing, because sometimes, when you're ignorant and following your instincts, you can do some unique and interesting things.
AAJ: How do you look back at the Raga Bop Trio experience?
GB: It began in an interesting way. Steve and I were rehearsing for the recording of Spirit and Spice. I drove up to Oregon where he lives and we worked on a bunch of duo stuff for it. We thought "Wow, this is really cool and exciting." We thought about it as a playing scenario. Then we decided there should be a third person. Steve had done a bunch of duo stuff with Prasanna, so that was the impetus. We got together for a rehearsal and writing session. I brought stuff in and so did Prasanna. Steve also had some ideas worked up and we went from there. It was a collaborative effort, which can sometimes be challenging musically. Sometimes it's good to have a leader and subordinates. Steve wanted the drum concept a certain way and for the musicians to play a particular way. He's very exacting, which was a good kick in the butt for me.
I think I play very strong on the album and in a different way. I was playing alto, which was my first horn. It was interesting to go back to that. I thought the sound would work well with the band. It's a more penetrating sound, which works in this context because Steve and Prasanna are loud. When Steve is with Summit, he plays on a small kit with bundled rods. They're called The Steve Smith Tala Wands, which he developed with Vic Firth to play with Summit and Indian drummers, since they're relatively quiet. On Raga Bop Trio, he played with sticks and a big kit. It was a really big sound. Prasanna is a very unique musician to work with. In a single solo, he'll go from South India to '50s jazz to Jimi Hendrix to ultra-modern guitar. He's rigorously trained in Indian classical music and is also interested in Western classical music. He has musical gifts piled onto him, including perfect pitch.
AAJ: One of your most unique bands is the multi-generation trio with Terry Riley and Talvin Singh. There has to be an interesting story behind its formation.
GB: Terry and I were going to do a gig in London for the Asian Music Circuit, a prominent Asian music touring organization. They contacted me and said they wanted to do something with me and Terry and I said, "Yeah." We developed a concept called California Kirana, The West Coast Legacy of Pandit Pran Nath. It coincided with Terry's 75th birthday. We both studied with Guruji. We were looking at different drumming possibilities, and Talvin caught wind of it and said, "Can I join? I've been learning about Pran Nath and this would be great. Terry said, "I've heard the name, but don't know the music. Let me go check out some stuff on YouTube." I knew about Talvin, but wasn't familiar with his electronica stuff. So, we vetted Talvin electronically over the Web, had a couple of great talks with him on the phone and then made arrangements for him to come out here to Northern California in August 2010.
We headed up to Terry's ranch to prepare in the way only Terry can, which means a lot of playing and eating. We got to know each other, went down and hung out on the river, and the personalities really blended. Talvin is incredibly sweet and really curious about everything, musically speaking. Terry's very knowledgeable about Indian music and a great student of Pran Nath's and knows many compositions in the old style. After we hung out and got to know each other well, we reappeared in Padova, Italy for a couple of days of rehearsal and then went on a really wonderful tour in which we played concerts, hung out, practiced, learned, and took care of each other. It was a rare and precious time. It would be great to get into the studio with the two of them and record some fun stuff.
AAJ: Describe the focus of the trio.
GB: Everything I've done with Terry is based around his compositional concepts. He's a brilliant pianist and composer. He sets the tone. Terry is most comfortable playing his music. That being said, he was graciously playing "Taj Express" from Lasting Impression, which was pretty cool, because it's a bit of a complicated thing. We focused a lot on some real raga-based things, including old khayal-type compositions, in which Terry is singing khayal pieces and chording them in an inside raga way, and sometimes in an outside aggressive way with exotic keyboard sounds, as well as piano and tabla. It was really rooted in the concept of Indian classical vocals, but then we would also do a lot of his instrumental pieces too.
Terry and I have been playing together since the early '80s, so I know a lot of his repertoire. He's very comfortable with saying "We played this piece 18 years ago, so we don't have to rehearse this." [laughs] His pieces are long, and many are complex, so it's very exciting and challenging for me to play with him. Sometimes, I'll be standing in front of hundreds or thousands of people with Terry and will have to play something I've never heard before. With Terry, if we played something amazing last night, we're sure as hell not going to play it the next night, because we're afraid we might try to play it the way we did the night before. We would be attempting to "re-create," rather than being in the moment. So, we have to do something else. We're always scratching around and looking for magic.