With Nocturne – to be released via Bandcamp on September 10, 2021 – Mittal reimagines Hindustani raga and jazz improvisation, painting an evocative, collage-like portrait of nighttime in Kolkata, India
Aakash Mittal – “a fiery alto saxophonist and prolific composer,” notes the Minneapolis Star Tribune – has created a strikingly evocative portrait of urban India with Nocturne, the first album by his Awaz Trio featuring guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan (who plays the mridangam and kanjira). The album, to be released September 10, 2021, via Bandcamp, summons the teeming sound world of nighttime Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). About the project, Mittal says: “I wanted to explore ‘night music’ as not only being meditative, calm and peaceful but also being full of density, collision, friction, and dissonance. There’s the Western classical concept of the nocturne in music as with Chopin and others, of course, as well as the deep culture that surrounds jazz as nighttime performance art. I wanted to combine those ideas with the Hindustani tradition of performing ragas at specific times of the night. Each piece on the album explores and deconstructs a different evening and night raga that I studied with the sarod player Prattyush Banerjee in India. I took the shapes and intervals of each of these ragas, abstracted them, and framed them in different contexts. There’s a lyricism that reflects the slow cadence of blue light melting into darkness, but there is also that aspect of energy, urgency, and intensity that can arise with the urban nighttime in India.”
The Denver Post has pointed out that Mittal’s work “points toward new possibilities in improvised music… Through his balance of tough improvisation and bright harmonies – coupled with thorough investigations into the rhythms of India – he has already arrived at his own place in the jazz community.” Mittal credits the influence of such cross-cultural jazz luminaries as Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Hafez Modirzadeh, in addition to his studies with Hindustani master Prattyush Banerjee and the many opportunities the saxophonist had to perform with Indian icon Ravi Shankar’s former tabla maestro Tanmoy Bose, in his band Taal Tantra. Then there was influential tutelage from the late, great New York drumming sage Milfred Graves. About his time studying with Graves, Mittal says: “Professor Graves often challenged me to trust myself and the work I’m doing by saying that ‘everyone has something to contribute.’ I embraced this idea of trust by giving Miles and Rajna a lot of freedom to construct the music through improvisation within and around the scored material.”
Reflecting on his experiences of Kolkata, Mittal traces the genesis of Nocturne: “One night at the peak of Kolkata’s Durga Pooja festival, I boarded a bus heading down Rash Behari Avenue. The city’s population of 14 million had seemingly increased overnight with the addition of millions more tourists and visitors. As travelers continued to climb onto the bus, I became more and more compressed by the mass of bodies around me until the overwhelming volume of people in the gangway lifted me off of the floor. With one hand holding onto the bus railing, I became suspended by my fellow humans as we moved through a sonic landscape of traffic noise and pooja drumming. The human density, music, and noise of my nighttime adventures in Kolkata informed the sound of Nocturne.”
Through a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies, Mittal was able to live in Kolkata for most of 2013-2015 – deepening his experience of the city beyond music classes. Over time, the compositions Mittal was writing evolved to include more and more of Kolkata’s noisescape, as well as the spirit of communal and ritual sound-making in the city. “This expanded my conception of what a nocturne can be,” he explains. “I found myself wanting to further explore the liminal space between music and noise. This recording’s sound-collages and group improvisations are a step toward that ambition.” Mittal devised the name for the Awaz Trio with this concept firmly in mind, with the Hindi-Urdu “awaz” being a word that changes meaning between sound, noise, and voice depending on the context.
Most of Mittal’s projects are created with specific musicians in mind. “This music of Nocturne is as much about my friendship with Rajna Swaminathan and Miles Okazaki as it is about two-note dyad progressions and short-long rhythms,” Mittal explains. “Rajna’s extensive musical vocabulary, drawn from her experience playing in numerous artistic communities, is central to this work. Her creativity and breadth of sound were on my mind from my initial imaginings to creating the framework of each composition. As for Miles, I love the way his intuition and musicianship ground our collective interpretations of each piece, contributing to a sense of liberation through the structure of this album. His ability to invent new material and challenge the ensemble to take greater risks – as well as laugh off mishaps in a recording session – are a gift. Together, Miles and Rajna cultivate a unified voice within the music, amplifying the compositions with their ability to create rhythmic architecture, melodic shapes, and timbral shading.”
Mittal, Okazaki, and Swaminathan have performed the material of Nocturne live as part of the Spring Revolution festival at National Sawdust in Brooklyn and in the Shastra Festival at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, among other high-profile venues. The pieces of Nocturne range from the lyrical and contemplative (“Nocturne I,” “Nocturne IV”) to the color-rich and rhythmically intent (“Nocturne II,” “Nocturne III,” “Nocturne V,” “Street Music Part 1,”), with atmospheric on-location Kolkata recordings serving variously as background (“Street Music I”), interlude (“Street Music Part 2”) and inspiration (“Street Music Part 3”). Ever grateful for his experiences and lessons learned in India, Mittal says: “I created this project with a great love for the people, music, and sounds of Kolkata.”
More About Aakash Mittal
Born in 1984 of Indian-Euro heritage in Texas, Aakash Mittal was raised in Dallas before moving at age 13 to Colorado, where he eventually began his music career. While in Colorado, the saxophonist-composer released four albums with his Aakash Mittal Quartet – including 2013’s Ocean, featuring star trumpeter Ron Miles. Mittal has been based in New York City since 2015, following two years in Kolkata, on a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies. While in India, he led a quartet at Kolkata’s Congo Square Jazz Festival and played in Pandit Tanmoy Bose’s Taal Tantra as well as with creative-music ensemble Kendraka. In New York, Mittal has worked with the Milford Graves Trio, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s acclaimed ensemble Rivers of Sound, Du Yun’s band Ok Miss and performed in the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s performances of Terry Riley’s minimalist classic In C. Mittal toured Mexico with Ravish Momin’s Trio Tarana, and he has also collaborated with avant-garde poet Bhanu Kapil, Bharatnatyam dancer Anjal Chande and trumpeter Dennis González. Mittal has composed more than 50 works for the jazz quartet, recorded on Ocean as well as the albums Videsh (2009) and Possible Beginnings (2008) and the EP Thumbs Up (2012). He has also composed the concert suite Three Songs of Bengal for wind ensemble and Meditations for Pictures on Silence for saxophone and harp duo. Mittal’s honors include the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming of Contemporary Music and the Herb Albert/ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award.