Nearly 15 years ago, jazz vocalist Joe Alvares had visited Chennai as a pop-rock singer, with glitzy chorus girls accompanying him on stage. “It was a long time ago, on a New Year’s eve in one of the Taj Hotels,” recalls Joe, his voice fading into a reverie. “Ever since then, my story has changed musically,” says the musician, who gave a smash hit performance at Phoenix MarketCity recently.
Over the years, Joe has visited Chennai for several more New Years’ eves besides other events, often collaborating with the late U Mandolin Srinivas, who he calls a ‘veritable saint’. “I recall this one performance which was very memorable, around four years ago. It was in the Taj Ballroom for a private audience. Srini and I performed for just a handful of people. There was no eating or drinking, just pure music,” he says. “It is that sacred discipline accorded to the music that I most appreciate here. During that performance, I was blown away by the audience. Chennai has real music lovers who are culturally oriented. We even had a world-renowned guitarist like John McLaughlin listening to us,” he adds.
According to Joe, places like Chennai and Bengaluru have a higher quotient of listeners for intelligent music that is not commercial. “This is because of the refinement of the mind of people here. This is a place which has the tradition of Thyagaraja’s kritis that are 3,000 years old. And it is always good to play in places that have rich history and tradition of music,” he says.
Joe has played in top festivals in Cuba in 2011 for around 12,000 people and Montreal in 2010 for a floating crowd of around 45,000 on one of the biggest streets. However, when it comes to jazz, it is not about the size of the crowd. “Jazz fusion is not necessarily a commercial story, it is more about human participation than the use of technology, synthesisers, recorded loops or vocal correction that are much used today. For example, take Electronic Dance Music, people just want to groove and not listen to intelligent songwriting or music,” he says. “But what is commercially successful is not the epitome of talent. Jazz music is for those who can sit down and enjoy a higher region of sound and talent,” he says.
And enjoy the crowd did, at his performance in the city. As he showcased his genius along with tabla player Ustad Fazal Quereshi, pianist Karan Joseph and vocalist Apeksha Dandekar, the audience drank in every musical note, asking for more. The troupe, which performed a series of jazz and fusion numbers with a few original compositions, also had a surprise performance by percussionist Selvaganesh. “We were thrilled to see the whole hearted reciprocation from the crowd,” he says.
While Joe says there are only about 10 jazz musicians in the whole country who are up there, he is hopeful that institutions like Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music will change the scenario. “In India, there is no formal education in the field, while in Europe, there are schools that are 150 years old. However, there are musicians who have taken the genre seriously, taken courses in Berklee and Boston, and come back. One can see a tangible change in the way they play,” he says.