Marc Rossi Interview
Looking for Meaning in the Hidden
Pianist Marc Rossi, a full-time Berklee College of Music professor, a composer, a working musician and a dedicated student of Hindustani and Carnatic music lives a life that finds him balancing all of these pursuits. The liner notes from his new CD Hidden Mandala say that, “he is treading that fine and rewarding line between teaching and learning.”
Among other impressive musical skills, Rossi is a fine progressive jazz pianist. But there are plenty of those people around. What sets Rossi apart is that he has found a way to integrate world music influences, most notably and deeply Indian music, into his jazz piano playing. True, there are many instrumentalists playing Indo-jazz. But, as far as I know, you can count on two fingers the number of pianists currently doing the same. That is because there is virtually no precedent for what Rossi and his west coast contemporary Stu Goldberg are doing these days. Indian music has no piano history. Ironically, these two western musicians are creating it right now.
Composer Rossi takes the conventions of Indian music structure and twists them around a bit to fit his western music and jazz needs. He is also finding ways to emulate the sounds of traditional Indian instruments through his bending of notes on piano and synthesizers. A good deal of Hidden Mandala is filled with the revelatory results of his efforts.
On Hidden Mandala Rossi leads a stellar group of musicians who interpret his compositions with advanced jazz improvisation and the hidden knowledge it takes to carry off the Indian and world music influences he has written into them. I was very impressed with what I heard. With an upcoming CD release party for Hidden Mandala scheduled for December 3rd, Abstract Logix thought it would be a great time to interview Mr. Rossi.
Walter: What is a Mandala and why is it hidden?
Marc: Good question. A Mandala can be many things, but basically it’s a symmetrical design of Indian or Tibetan origin that represents the universe and the seeking of wholeness or completion. It can picture deities, have patterns and meditation designs and/or tell a story. Some Mandalas – the kind I had in mind – can be viewed from different perspectives like a turning wheel showing that what’s front and center is always changing and evolving. This is often based on the viewer’s perspective. This perspective shows the circular and internal aspect of life rather than focusing entirely on a linear goal-oriented path.
The fact it’s “hidden” is a metaphor for things going on in life that are affecting you in ways you might not even be aware of. In Greek tragedy its counterpart would be deus-ex-machina. In my case, there was adversity in my life I had to understand and deal with. The Hidden Mandala, metaphorically speaking, can be beautiful or dangerous. At the same time, the Mandala is a way into our deeper selves. It seeks to create understanding and unity.
Walter: You’ve studied all aspects of music. This has included composition, orchestration and improvisation. You have also formally studied Hindustani and Carnatic music and even the Lydian Chromatic Concept. Where did this musical inquisitiveness come from?
Marc: I’ve been curious about music since I was a small child. I love it to death, and it always fascinated me. It makes me feel whole, and it helps me get into myself and connect with the universe like nothing else. It takes me deeper in and also further out. It’s the Yin and yang.
Walter: Were your parents musicians?
Marc: My maternal grandfather was a piano teacher in New Haven, CT where I grew up. I started lessons at age 4. My mother exposed me to all kinds of classical music. As a small kid I loved Mozart. I couldn’t get enough of it – particularly the Jupiter symphony. I wore those records out. My father had beautiful recordings of Flamenco guitar which I loved too. This made me feel more exotic, powerful, soulful, noble, and rhythmic. At times I liked the Flamenco more. But the European thing had a bigger reach and an intellectual elegance I admired. I needed them both. Maybe it’s was like the Appolonian and Dionesian sides of my personality. I seek fulfillment through music.
Walter: When did you know the piano would be your life? What led you to NEC (New England Conservatory)?
Marc: Since I started piano at age 4, it’s always been there. But for a number of years I really wanted to become a professional guitarist. I still feel that’s an unfulfilled part of me. But then I decided I wanted to be a composer. That’s when I got serious about piano. I got very involved with Bach in High School. That clinched it. In any case, I knew at about age 11 music would be my life. I actually remember the exact day. I had just learned a new Beatle song on the guitar. At the same exact time I was thinking about the 3rd movement of Beethoven’s Pathètique sonata. I connected the two pieces in my head. I remember saying to myself, If music can get to me like this, I’ve got to get inside it and master it. It’s my very soul. I went too NEC because they had jazz and Indian music and I could get a degree in composition.
Walter: What musicians grabbed you and why?
Marc: I loved McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Monk, Joe Zawinul, Andrew Hill, Joe Bonner, Chick Corea and Jan Hammer. There are so many more. I once visited Jan Hammer in 1973 in NY when he was rehearsing Tales of the Exonerated Flea with Horacee Arnold. Jan played me some Ali Akbar Khan at his place. So, he was clearly listening to Indian music too. McCoy has a beautiful African-like celebration of body, mind and spirit. His playing is very healing and unifying for me. Herbie has such beautiful color and groove and his time is so electric. It centers you. Plus he plays great electric keyboards which I love. I ignored Bill for years. I thought he was too “white-sounding.” When I grew up I realized how brilliant and subtle he was and that EVERYBODY was influenced by him! Charlie Banacos, my teacher, had a lot to do with helping me to appreciate Bill. Joe Zawinul is my hero. He was a total world musician. I would call him a universal sonic navigator. You were gracious enough in your jazz.com review to say my music is total world fusion. That’s what Zawinul did.
Walter: Are all your influences piano players?
Marc: No. I’m also very influenced by the composers Toru Takemitsu, Karheinz Stockhausen, Gustav Mahler, Bela Bartòk, and jazz composers Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin, just to mention a few. I was into Indian music since I was in my teens and had my own path when I first started composing Indian-jazz fusion. But John’s pieces were a big influence. Meeting of the Spirits, Dance of Maya, Birds of Fire, and Sanctuary all influenced me. The way I harmonize ragas is also influenced by him. I teach a composition course at Berklee based on this fusion period. It includes Miles, Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and others. Other influences include sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, who is one of my favorite all time musicians, Ravi Shankar and veena player Balachandar. Since I play guitar and sitar, string instruments are a big influence. I also must mention my four teachers. I think they are certifiable geniuses. They are composers George Russell, William Thomas McKinley, Frank Bennett, and pianist Charlie Banacos. I cannot begin to say how much they have all influenced me and how much I respect them. They are all mentors. Frank has been more than a teacher to me. He has served as a role model too.
Walter: How did your interest in Indian music come about?
Marc: My interest in Indian music started with Ravi Shankar when I was about thirteen. Being a blues and rock electric guitarist, I loved bending notes and that’s what a sitar does so well. I also love modes and interesting rhythms. The sound of just the Indian intonation affected me too even though I didn’t know much about it at that time.
Walter: How did you incorporate it into the jazz I assume you were playing first?
Marc: Actually, at first I integrated my Indian music ideas into the rock music I was playing on both guitar and organ. But later I started using it in modal jazz.
Walter: Did you start with North Indian (Hindustani) or South Indian (Carnatic) music?
Marc: I first got into Hindustani music which emphasizes short compositions, lots of
improvisation and a beautiful captivating lush mood. Later on, I got into Carnatic
music with its beautiful compositions, strong rhythms and its flexibility in integrating Western instruments into an ensemble. I suppose my home base is Hindustani. But I like Carnatic equally. I certainly need them both. Again, I would say it’s about seeking a kind of Appolonian-Dionesian balance.
Walter: Hidden Mandala is much more than jazz with some Indian elements thrown in. But on the music on the album that does include Indian aspects, how strictly do you adhere to the cycles and other rules of the Indian Rag?
Marc: I actually take a great deal of liberty and poetic license. I use the Indian elements as I want to as a composer. It is a part of my jazz language, which is about managing the freedom. I don’t always follow specific rules, because it’s not Indian classical music we are playing. I believe that it’s my right and obligation as a composer to follow what I hear. Yet at the same time, the integrity of Indian ideas is clear. Distinguished Indian musicians like Lalgudi Krishnan and Satish Vyas immediately recognize my sources. However, there are definite times I do follow rag grammar if it fits the music. But this would still be in the context of remembering that this is creative Western music we are playing.
On the other hand, when my guest Geetha Bennett sings Raga Bhairavi (popular raga form) in my piece Voice of 1000 Colors Intro, she sang real Carnatic alapana (introductory) phrases that she adjusted and mixed as she saw fit to go with the Western instruments which were playing Bhairavi raga type phrases. The same is true for all the ragas she sings as background in the vamp section in “Blues for Frank and Geetha.” Also, some of the korvais (rhythmic cadences) such as the one in “Hidden Mandala” at the end of the drum solo are pure Indian phrases plugged into the fabric of the composition. Indian music is part of my pallet. I use it as I see fit melodically, rhythmically, harmonically, conceptually and more. The possibilities are endless as long as you know what you are doing and how to make it work.
Walter: Marc, there aren’t two many examples for musicians who want to play Indian music on the piano. You and Stu Goldberg are the only two Western piano players I know of that even attempt it. I don’t think there is a real history of Indian piano players at all. There is the harmonium I suppose and the electric keyboards and synthesizers that are used in Bollywood films. But not the acoustic piano itself… It’s just not part of the tradition.
Marc: These are great questions. Well first of all, I really started playing Indian music with guitar. Later on I went to synths and electric piano, and then to the sitar. But the idea of resonance – of having a big sonority – is similar. The pedal on the piano sustains and creates a rich world of sound color. It is almost like French Impressionistic painting. So it’s really a matter of what I am as a musician and how I explore this at the keyboard. As a composer I work my musical ideas out at the piano. I create from there. Also don’t forget I play synth a lot too. This allows me to bend notes. On Hidden Mandala I played more acoustic piano and MIDI piano than on my previous CDs. I seek on piano and electric keyboards a style that is influenced by Indian instruments like the sitar, sarod, veena, violin, and santoor – an instrument on which you can’t bend notes. That is a rarity for an Indian instrument. But what a sound! The resonance is haunting and irresistible.
Walter: You’ve gathered some wonderful musicians for Hidden Mandala and given them some challenging material. I must say the music is full of a joyful energy and power. I would call it a real fusion that fans of modern jazz, both electric and acoustic, would really appreciate.
Marc: To play my music well one has to be really open to new things and play these new things at a high level. You must be able to negotiate and integrate a multitude of styles. I remember reading that that was one of Joe Zawinul’s criteria for picking people for Weather Report. I humbly agree with that.
Walter: Well then, how did you go about selecting these musicians? Did they share the same affinity for this cross-cultural jazz as you or did you have to pull them in with you? Do you have to go over Indian music rules when you have them perform these pieces?
Marc: Well, I worked with these great musicians for years. As far as the core group of goes… Lance Van Lenten (sax and flute), Bill Urmson (bass) and I are all graduates of New England Conservatory whom I’ve played with for over 20 years. We share that common history. Lance and Bill played on my first Marc Rossi Group CD, We Must Continue. We all also took Peter’ Row’s Indian music classes at NEC, so these guys were totally open to new things. I’ve always had them in my band and I am glad they’ve been available.
I met Mauricio (Zottarelli) (Marc’s drummer) at Berklee in 2003. He’s amazing. I knew right then I wanted him in my group. He’s open to new ideas, plays any kind of groove, and has even studied some Indian music. Now he lives in NY and is in great demand.
Walter: You added a few guest musicians as well.
Marc: Yes. I invited guitarist Bruce Arnold who was in my earlier band and played on my We Must Continue CD. I really wanted him on this recording. We both studied with Charlie Banacos. His playing reflects the cutting-edge NY improvisational scene. He also understands 20th century classical music. He brings a superior level of awareness to whatever he plays.
Walter: The Indian guitarist Prassanna is phenomenal.
Marc: Yes. Prasanna is another amazing person. He is the only Indian born Indian classical musician I know who really knows Western music in depth. He is one of a handful who plays Carnatic music on the electric guitar. I wanted him to play on “Bittersweet Five,” since he does such a beautiful job with it. But I also have another CD that will be out in a few months with the same group on which he will featured on another cut named “Jazz Impressions of a Kriti.”
Walter: Some tunes feature Indian vocalizing.
Marc: Geetha Bennett, the wife of Frank Bennett who I mentioned earlier, is an “A” Top Rank artist (Indian classical music ranking) who plays the veena and sings. She is really an extraordinary musician. She’s toured and recorded with Trilok Gurtu and Andy Summers of the Police, among others. I originally was only going to have her sing on one or two tunes that will be out on that upcoming CD. But then I thought wait a minute. Why not have her sing on a number of them?” So that’s what I did, and it worked out beautifully. Geetha sings alapana style in the background and doubles some heads. That is something most Indian singers could not do.
Walter: I know all compositions are like children. But if you had to pick one tune from the album that would come closest to your ideal vision for your music – which one would it be?
Marc: That’s EXACTLY what I always say! My compositions are like my children! I love them all. Each one has its own unique character. This CD is about my compositions. They all matter. If I had to pick one though… I would say “Hidden Mandala.” It has lyrical melodies, a hip form, a groove, rich modal harmonies, orchestration, and some strange modulations that I hope will intrigue the listener. It’s a combination of freedom and discipline. We can play the composition verbatim with just short solos, or we can also really open it up for improvisation and really reach.
But as you said, the pieces are all my children, and I love them all for different reasons. I hope that they are all good and move people. It’s always interesting to see what pieces different people like. As with all composers, certain tunes seem to endure more over time. That’s part of the beauty of sharing your musical soul!
Walter: Jazz and Indian music are the predominate elements on Hidden Mandala. But they are only part of the mix. There are many other ingredients. How would you describe the finished recipe?
Marc: To me it’s like a Sgt Pepper’s concept. This is progressive jazz music interacting with a dream state of something else. This creates a coexistence of different dimensions. I try to integrate all languages to seek a higher unity among my musical parts and to create balance.