Interview: Arun Ghosh

Arun Ghosh

‘Conceived in Calcutta, bred in Bolton, matured in Manchester, now living in London’ is part of Arun Ghosh’s biog and is the perfect description of this clarinet player’s past and present. He composes, performs and records music which is reflected in this rich heritage.

Following a formal musical schooling, he landed numerous gigs in Manchester before releasing the acclaimed albums Northern Namaste in 2008 and Primal Odyssey at the end of 2011. He’s continued to enjoy great success both in the live arena and through musical work on public projects which have been very much in the media spotlight over the previous 18 months.

Last year Arun was one of the BT Celebrity Storytellers for the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics and also appeared as a featured artist with his Arkestra Makara pan-Asian chamber orchestra. This musical performance was for the BT River of Music Festival as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

In the same year, he was selected as one of two UK musicians (alongside jazz guitarist Chris Sharkey) for the second edition of Take Five Europe and has been recently touring as part of the ensemble.

With so many musical plates, he’s obviously an extremely busy man but we managed to catch Arun to get his thoughts on the current health of the jazz scene in the UK and why he thinks the music has been rescued from becoming a period piece…

How did you first get into jazz?

Since I picked up the recorder at an early age, I could play by ear and make up my own tunes. I became obsessed with rhythms, music and with improvising and writing my own songs.

Over the years I tried a number of different instruments but the clarinet just felt right. I found Courtney Pine’s gig at the Nelson Mandela concert at the time of his first album massively inspiring. My mum bought me his second album when I was about 12 and I fell in love with it.

Did you have a formal schooling in the music?

I learnt classical music first and studied the likes of Mozart and Beethoven at Cambridge University, then went to do a post grad in performance at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. While I was there, I realised the classical world wasn’t for me and I was much happier composing, improvising and playing jazz.

In Manchester I had a couple of great people who showed me some direction. I started going out and playing at parties and jams, meeting musicians and slowly but surely putting my own groups together. In the mean time I was teaching and composing too.

After a couple of gigs, a director at the Contact Theatre in Manchester asked me to compose a score for a play they were doing. That was my first professional composition and I’ve done many since. It was one of the many special things which happened during those early years in Manchester.

What are you currently working on?

We recorded a new album in May which is due for an October release date. This is a collection of new compositions inspired by the folk music of the different countries of the sub continent. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepaul, Sri Lanka – we’ve got piano sax, clarinet, bass drums.

Does it mark a shift in sound from previous records?

Primal Odyssey was very much me working with a harsher set up. I had three horns, bass and drums – bass clarinet, tenor sax, clarinet which was very a strong part of the sound. That three horn frontline is something I really like. It had a very Indian sound. But I think I’m very keen to bring that tabla sound back in. It feels really good to have native percussion, particularly as a lot of the music is inspired by Indian folk music.

When I did Primal Odyssey I was in quite a dark place and it had a slightly more twisted approach to music making. It’s really strong and works well live.

How do you write your songs?

It stems from folk music and whatever that folk music is. If it’s Bengali folk music, then fine but it could be blues, it could be reggae, it could be jungle or punk. Those are the sounds which inspire me musically. I love basslines, grooves, melodies – very simple things – but melody is key.

My songs come two ways – either with a bassline or a melody. There will be set parts but when I bring it to the band, we do it spontaneously. Everyone knows the notes, melodies, basslines and chords but I don’t set where it goes.

What we’re doing comes more from the folk scene where the tune comes back regularly throughout the piece. Then there’s another variation and you work your way through it but with a lot of the improvisation.

Is jazz going through a good period at the moment?

It seems so – British jazz has always been strong and it seems to be developing a younger, more rebel identity. Previous generations kind of recreated jazz like the US did – right down to the uniforms – but they’ve been playing in the same sounds and styles that you might have seen in the 50s. That era was so strong culturally and sonically you can see why people want to create it.

But it meant jazz started moving towards becoming a classical kind of music which is very much at odds with how people first saw jazz. It’s a music representative of freedom and rebellion.

Now younger and older people are stamping their own mark on it with all manner of bands creating their own sounds and genres within the wider jazz genre. Whether they’re using electronics, acoustic forms, reworking standards or improvising.

You’ve got this huge explosion of different musicians kind of playing all this new stuff. It’s really exciting. There’s a real openness to it.

Are audiences just as open?

The audience is also growing as people are much more inclined to go out and hear jazz played live. Our shows are doing really well in terms of sales but people are also coming to see live music.

There’s such a huge influx of new music being recorded and released all the time. But I reckon what makes music special is for people to go out and hear it played live. It’s always going to be difficult because the live music scene is part of a wider entertainment industry. People have got less money, everything is more expensive. It’s harder to make it add up but more people are getting out there and taking a punt. I’m really positive about it.

Could you explain the Take Five initiative and how that works?

I’m involved in Take 5 Europe which is part run by Serious – and the PRS for Music Foundation have a look in there. It’s an artist development kind of scheme where musicians can stay together and learn about various things in the industry. This one is Europe-specific with two musicians from the five participating countries – the UK, Poland, France, Holland and Norway. We’ve formed a band and are going around playing festivals in different countries.

So it’s a great scheme which develops my playing while making me feel part of Europe. Whenever we play there, it’s amazing. Take Five is helping me tap into that scene and making me feel as if I belong there.

Read our full length feature from the latest issue of M on the new generation of jazz artists, who alongside Arun, are doing their bit to reinvent perceptions of the genre.

Find out more about Serious and the Take Five initiative.