Growing up in Ottawa, violinist Chris McKhool took in a wide variety of concerts at the National Arts Centre – everything from the NAC Orchestra to Bruce Cockburn to Ravi Shankar.
On Thursday, his band, the Sultans of String, will perform at the NAC for the first time – playing a similarly varied repertoire, with a basis in jazz.
The Sultans are known for combining Gypsy jazz, Arabic rhythms, Cuban percussion, and rumba flamenco to create their energetic music. Two of their albums were nominated for Juno Awards, including Symphony!, their collaboration with a symphony orchestra, in 2015.
For this show and for their latest album, they've gone one step further – adding classical Indian music and the sitar to the mix. But it's still all based on improvisation and jazz – with a strong world music flavour.
“Jazz and world music are so closely related because, the way we're playing it, they're both improvised music. So much of it is created in the moment and using deep listening skills,” McKhool told OttawaJazzScene.ca.
The Toronto-based group, which celebrated its tenth anniversary on April 1, started when McKhool met guitarist Kevin Laliberté, soon adding in bassist Drew Birston and Cuban percussionist Rosendo 'Chendy' Leon. Each had a jazz background, but added other musical influences as well. Over four previous albums, McKhool and Laliberté wrote much of the group's material, bringing in guest artists who included trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and saxophonist Ernie Tollar to add specific colours.
But their latest album, Subcontinental Drift, took a very different path. Over an almost two-year period, they co-wrote many of the pieces with Toronto sitar player Anwar Khurshid.
“[Khurshid is] originally from Pakistan but has made Canada his home for about 17 years. And he's really an amazing player, because he's got this classical Indian music upbringing – he can play all those compositions and ragas – but he also has a very open ear to Western music. When he came over, he started jamming with musicians from all kinds of backgrounds. He's got a very improvisational group as well with a couple other musicians called AVANI.”
“When we met Anwar, it was such perfect timing because Kevin and I, we'd been writing these songs together for ten years and I think we were really ready for another influence to come in and help inform some of the composing that we wanted to do. So this is the first time that we actually sat down with one of our special guests and had them create the music with us. This was a different process, and I was really grateful for it, because out came something very individually tailored to the musicians that were in room, primarily Kevin, Anwar, I, and then opening it up to the larger ensemble to help us arrange the songs.”
They sat down and played together, improvising the music – and overcoming some cultural differences which made the writing process interesting.
“For one thing, Anwar could be playing on the sitar for about five minutes and he would be still just warming up. We really wanted to give space for music to be created and to grow, so we would hide all the clocks. But I would be taping anything just in case anything really 'juicy' came up. And we'd come up with what seemed like a great idea, and I'd listen back to it and it was 37 minutes long, and I'm like, 'OK, the Western audiences that usually come to see our concerts are not going to sit through that.'
“So the challenge was how to take that great idea but condense it into a four-minute pop song format.”
That's why jazz music is so interesting to listen to and watch live because you can see people learning and responding to each other right there in that moment. So the same is true with Anwar. A lot of responding in the moment to what's happened is something I really love about playing with him.
– Chris McKhool
As well, unlike Western music, classical Indian or Pakistani music doesn't use harmony – only rhythm and melody. “It's all horizontal instead of vertical. And so the rhythms can be quite complex, the melodies can be super-complex, very intricate like some of the scales he shows us where you have to play them a certain way on the way up and then actually a different way on the way down. It's not necessarily the same notes in the same order when you go up and down the scales.”
“So when Kevin and I improvise, we're using both our Western harmony and also our pop music sensibilities and more or less some amount of jazz knowledge. Kevin, even in a folksong, might fit in a little bebop lick here and there, which is why his playing is so hip. But Anwar, I think, he has to make a decision whether, whenever he's playing something, if he's going to be trying to keep it to a certain raga or if he's just going to let go of that completely and give himself over to the more Western feel.”
On the other hand, the Indian way of learning music – call and response – is similar to playing jazz, McKhool said. “You hear something and you repeat it. The classical model that I grew up with where you see a bunch of notes on the page and you have to interpret what's written on the page and turn it into music – in a way it's a little bit ridiculous, right? So, very much like the jazz world, the world that he comes from is one of call and response and deep listening.”
“That's why jazz music is so interesting to listen to and watch live because you can see people learning and responding to each other right there in that moment. So the same is true with Anwar. A lot of responding in the moment to what's happened is something I really love about playing with him.”
The album opens with a song that Khurshid co-wrote with Montreal blues guitarist Paul DesLauriers, and continues with an Irish fiddle tune called “The Rakes of Mallow”, which was brought over to the Indian subcontinent during the British occupation, and is now played there on the sitar. The CD also includes a traditional Sindhi song with new English lyrics, a song with both Urdu and English lyrics, and several instrumentals. The most unusual choice is Bob Dylan's “Blowing in the Wind”, a song the album notes that Khurshid used to play in Pakistan.
McKhool said the underlying theme of the album was freedom, directly related to the experience of the musicians. Leon, for example, came to Canada from Cuba, “looking for a place where he could be more free of the government oppression he felt. If you meet him you'll learn that he's one of the kindest, most giving people you'd meet, but he really gets his back up very quickly when he's being controlled by the state.”
“In the same way, Anwar found freedom in Canada that he could never find in his home village in Pakistan. Actually, his brother had come here initially to Canada and spent some time here and then returned to Pakistan. And Anwar said to me he really loved the person that his brother had become by living here. It had really changed him.”
In his village, Khurshid “wasn't really permitted to play sitar out of the house. When you see him play sitar, you realize how much of his being and his identity is wrapped up in playing that instrument. So it was really a nice moment for him when he found a home here and really experienced that kind of freedom, too, to be what he wanted to be.”
One of the instrumentals on the album, “Journey to Freedom”, is inspired by Khurshid's journey to Canada. “It was one of those songs that we were writing as an improvisation. It had that sense of propelling forward and movement that we thought was a nice tie-in with the feeling he had in being able to find a new home here.”
There's a lot of soloing in the concert show – quite a bit and we try to keep it interesting so that it doesn't feel like for the audience 'oh, here comes another guitar solo, oh, here comes another violin solo'. And one of the ways that we thought we could do that was to incorporate a different time signature, so soloing over a 7/4 was basically what that song was created for.
– Chris McKhool
On the other hand, the album's title track, “Subcontinental Drift”, is more similar to previous Sultans of String material. McKhool said Laliberté wrote that piece “because he really wanted a song for Chendy to be able to solo on when he was performing live.”
“And there's a lot of soloing in the concert show – quite a bit and we try to keep it interesting so that it doesn't feel like for the audience 'oh, here comes another guitar solo, oh, here comes another violin solo'. And one of the ways that we thought we could do that was to incorporate a different time signature, so soloing over a 7/4 was basically what that song was created for.”
The title itself relates to creating something new out of different musics joining, he said – “a pun off continental drift. I imagined South Asia and Canada drifting together, maybe Anwar coming over on a raft or something!”
McKhool said the Sultans' next CD will be quite different: a Christmas album, which will incorporate all their musical styles – rumba flamenco, Gypsy jazz, Arabic rhythms, Cuban motifs. “It's all going to be in there. It's going to be a blast!”
The band will tour across Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. in 2016, he said, including many shows with Khurshid playing the music of Subcontinental Drift. He and Khurshid are also continuing to write music together, and teaching each other.
“You never stop learning: it's the best thing about being a musician. Even though we've got this project under our belts, I'm still writing with Anwar and still trying to learn some of the really intricate bends that he does on his instrument. If you can come to the show, you'll see what he does. He'll play like seven notes without moving, without changing frets. He'll be like [McKhool sings a warbling tone with constant changes] just by bending the string. So I'm always learning in that way and that informs everything.”
– Alayne McGregor