Charu Suri and her band had been practicing and rehearsing for this moment for well over six months. The morning of her performance at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York, Suri's Sufi singer - an important part of the performance - developed laryngitis.
"The Sufi improvisation was one of the core aspects that several jazz fans were coming to see us do. And here I was, on the evening of perhaps the most momentous concert of my career, debuting two of my albums, with one singer incapacitated," remembers Suri.
The composer knew that finding another Sufi singer at such short notice was almost impossible. But luck was on her side. "I got the name and number of Umer Piracha, a singer who had grown up in Multan, Pakistan, well known for its Sufi traditions," says Suri.
She called him up and blurted out, "You don’t know me from Adam, but we have a Carnegie Hall concert tonight!" A rushed practice session followed. "That evening we received a standing ovation," she smiles.
Suri, who took to playing the piano at the age of five, is the first Indian American jazz composer to premier work at Carnegie Hall. Having performed classical music most of her life, she was inspired by the idea of composing a jazz album when she visited New Orleans for a writing assignment. "I had never thought of the idea of forming a band before, but after that concert, and looking at how happy everyone was, I felt truly inspired! Perhaps this was the time to release my own album," she says.
Back in her hotel room, she found musical supplies and soon started jotting down the notes to a song that later became 'Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva' for her first album, Lollipops for Breakfast. Talking about her recent albums The New American Songbook and The Book of Ragas, she says, "I had grown up listening to the Songbook my whole life and I would always be lost in some sort of a delicious jazz bubble, far removed from the harsh realities of life. As my band started to perform in various venues, we kept playing a lot of the Songbook standards, and I just knew I needed to write some of my own, to continue the tradition. The Book of Ragas stemmed from my life-long desire to create something truly new in music. I felt that if I was going to create a fresher sound, it had to involve Carnatic and Hindustani music that I learned and listened to as a child."
Suri ended up blending Sufi sounds and experimented with the ragas, choosing morning, afternoon and evening ragas, including Kalyani, Hemant and Bhimpalasi. The feedback, she says, has been phenomenal. "It’s on the ballot for this year's Grammy awards," she smiles.
The lockdown has kept her busy. "I put out a jazz piece on my social channels every single day, to cheer people up," Suri says. These 'COVID concerts' are now a weekly thing for her.
My band and I have also started livestreaming concerts in partnership with Musae, an event company that streams music in HD and VR. "Music is the only way that I know that I can help bring some joy to people’s lives during this extremely difficult time," Suri adds as she goes about tuning in the perfect pitch for her next social media recital.