PREVIEW FEATURE: Playing John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Fusions (Birmingham mac, 8th April)

Indo-Jazz Fusions in the 1990s: John Mayer with (clockwise from top left) James MacDowell, Jonathan Mayer, Steve Tromans, Ranjit Singh, Chris Featonby, Andrew Bratt, Dave Smith, Anna Brooks.

As he prepares to lead a band in homage to a pioneer of musical fusion, composer and bandleader JOHN MAYER, pianist STEVE TROMANS remembers how the great man left his mark:

In his sleeve notes to the album Etudes (originally released 1969, remastered and re-released on First Hand Records 2008), John Mayer describes his compositional intention with Indo-Jazz Fusions as being to “combine the techniques of symphonic writing with the medium of jazz and the Indian system of raga and tala”. Almost 50 years since the penning of those words – and compositions – and Mayer’s approach to the fusing of musical systems from diverse cultures still retains the extraordinary sense of nascence and revolution engendered in the first incarnation of Indo-Jazz Fusions (featuring the legendary saxophonist Joe Harriott).

Joe Harriott and John Mayer in 1966.

Mayer (1930-2004) began his musical life as a violinist, studying at the Calcutta School of Music before winning a scholarship to study under Melhi Mehta at the Royal Academy in London in 1950. After time in the London and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestras in the 1950s and early-‘60s, it was in 1964 that, firstly, EMI producer Dennis Preston and, later, Atlantic Record’s Ahmet Ertegun respectively sparked and encouraged interest in Mayer’s fusion of Indian classical and modern jazz stylings. This interest led to the recording (among others) of the Indo-Jazz Fusions I album, released in 1966 to critical acclaim and followed by further recordings and performances in the UK and Europe – before Harriott’s death in 1973 brought the project to an untimely end.

Fast-forward to the mid-’90s, and my own association with John Mayer began with the great man as my composition tutor at Birmingham Conservatoire of Music (UK). Encouraged by student interest (including my own) in the Indo-Jazz project, Mayer was persuaded to reform the band, leading to four albums and three major tours (India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), plus a string of festival and club-venue appearances before his tragic death - he was fatally injured by a car - in 2004.

Mayer’s legacy, for myself (as a jazz pianist and composer), and for my peers who also played in (what turned out to be) the last incarnation of Indo-Jazz Fusions, centres on his perpetual willingness to experiment, and to take musical chances: to bring together aspects of two different musical cultures (jazz and Indian classical) and to compose a way to allow them to find each other, in the ensuing improvisations of the performers concerned. As Ian Carr points out, in his liner notes to the Indo-Jazz Fusions II album (originally released in 1968), “They said it couldn’t be done ... But it has been done: East has met – and fused with – West”. And it was John Mayer who composed that fusion – which is no mean feat (when was the last time any one of us invented a whole new way of hearing and feeling disparate musical cultures, I wonder?).

And speaking of legacy, it is with a certain pride that I am to be leading a homage to John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz Fusions as part of the forthcoming Surge in Spring festival at the Midlands’ Arts Centre (mac), Birmingham (UK), 8 April 2017. The event will provide the opportunity for John’s son, the renowned sitarist and composer Jonathan Mayer, to perform alongside members of the Surge Orchestra (including myself) and special guests – including the tabla master Mohinder Singh, and a young lion of the Birmingham scene, Xhosa Cole (saxophone and flute). We will be revisiting certain of Mayer Snr’s pieces from the original Indo-Jazz project, plus arrangements and new compositions from members of the specially-formed ensemble.

In this current political and cultural climate of 2017, it seems to my senses to be vital that Mayer’s Indo-Jazz experiments be rekindled and rebooted for a new generation of musicians and music fans. As John himself said in 1996, concerning his feelings on the fusions he helped pioneer: “There’s not the isolation that there was before – there is a closeness ... which is so nice”. We can all learn more than a little from such sentiments.

John Mayer’s Indo-Jazz Fusions is appearing at Surge In Spring, mac, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham at 4.30pm on Saturday 8 April 2017.

LINK: Surge In Spring: John Mayer's Indo-Jazz Fusions

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