An interview with jazz composer and clarinet maestro Arun Ghosh

Arun Ghosh is a jazz composer and clarinet player renowned for infusing his work with elements characteristic of traditional Indian music, however the material on his new album But Where Are You Really From? is set to challenge what we know about Ghosh as a writer and producer. Recorded in Manchester and featuring a host of exciting young players; it’s a project that Ghosh is eager to release and ecstatic about performing for a Manchester audience, at Band on the Wall on 13th October. It was but one topic up for discussion when we caught up with the 2014 Parliamentary jazz award winner, alongside his previous collaborations with Zoe Rahman and his personal listening habits…

Your show at Band on the Wall next month coincides with the launch of your forthcoming album But Where Are You Really From?. Can you tell us about the music that appears on the record and your journey through writing and recording it – did it come naturally and did you create the recording using any new techniques or creative processes? 

The new album marks a move away from the Indo-Jazz sound of A South Asian Suite; that album is very much about the World Jazz vibe, there’s an acoustic classicism to it. But Where Are You Really From? is much more layered with guitars, synths and electric textures supporting the clarinet and horn melodies.

It was mostly recorded in Longsight this year, featuring Manchester musicians such as Mykey Wilson, Dave Walsh and Sylvan Richardson, and so the sound of the album is imbued with Manchester vibes. The compositions span work I’ve done over twenty years, a lot of the pieces have less of a jazz and improvised feel, they’re more like songs without words. There’s some real headbangers, alongside very sweet and tender melodies, it’s pretty extremist, if you know what I mean?!

As well as clarinet, I played all guitars, keys and synths on this new record, a real labour of love, working with the great Yvonne Ellis at her studio in Longsight. I’m looking forward to the band playing these new tunes, Shirley Tetteh (from Nerija) on guitar is gonna be a force to be reckoned with on the gigs…

I’m really happy with the horn writing and playing on this record…the way the clarinet and the two saxes (Idris Rahman and Chris Williams) work together is beautiful and full of love, I’m really proud of that.

The title of your previous record, A South Asian Suite, gave an indication of the sounds and musical styles that the listener might be greeted with, but that’s less so for your new record. What influenced the title of this record and does it see you exploring any new territory?

As I said before, there’s new sounds that haven’t featured on my albums before, I started bringing in a lot more of the sonic layering to tracks like I do in my theatre scores. Musically there’s so many influences to it, and that reflects what I’ve grown up listening to: rave, jungle, the Charlatans, Inspirals and all that, Bowie, Velvet Underground, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash alongside Bengali folk music, and jazz from the last 100 years, folk music from around the world, ancient primal rhythms! Songs, emotions, poetry, it’s global and eternal, that’s what I’m tapping into here!!

That’s all there, here in this album, it reflects who I am, answers the question of where I’m from musically, emotionally, geographically, culturally. In lots of ways, it’s been a real liberating journey making this record, and it sounds brilliant, come to the gig and hear for yourself!

Zoe Rahman appeared on A South Asian Suite and she leads a jazz residency at Band on the Wall this Autumn. What is Zoe like to work with and by way of your experience, how do you think young jazz musicians might benefit from her influence?

Zoe’s great, an inspiring player, gifted, with a brilliant technique alongside a liberated, spontaneous and pure emotional expression, that fills her playing and her attitude to music and composition. When she performs, she emits these waves of emotional energy that fill the room. I think that young musicians will buzz off working with her, and being around her. In fact, I’m thinking of getting into disguise and joining in with the residency incognito.

In addition to the new album, you’ve also created some new music for a play entitled Child of the Divide this year. What can you tell us about the play and its subject matter, the aspects of the project that encouraged you to get involved and how, if at all, composing for a theatre piece challenged you as a musician?

I write a lot of music for theatre, around six or seven shows a year, always have done since I was at school in fact. I love the theatre, the ideas you get to express musically, the movement, emotional themes, narratives, dark crazed psychological stuff, love themes, fragile moments, dream sequences, fights…whatever!

Often the music I write for theatre features on my albums, there’s a few theatre pieces on the new album, Dagger Dance, How Do You Keep Your Love?….plus the sonic textures and soundscapes I use in the theatre scores I do feature across the album – am really looking forward to playing this stuff live.

What music have you been listening to recently and what excites you for the remainder of the year, looking ahead to 2018?

I’ve been working so hard on But Where Are You Really From? and this year’s theatre shows that I haven’t listened to as much as I normally do. I’ve needed space from other people’s music and new music, I’ve needed to keep myself pure. I listened to Yusef Lateef’s ‘Detroit’ a bit recently, that’s an amazing album, lit some incense and tripped backed into 70’s Detroit. Some Alice Coltrane. Bit of Neil Young. But I’ve been listening to music in my own head, I don’t even need to put it on, I just start thinking about the song and it plays in my head, you know, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, Wu Tang Clan, The Kinks, The Animals, Lightnin Hopkins. Maybe I’ll play the song at the harmonium, and I do that instead of putting the record on. I’ve been listening to buskers and my kids practising their instruments, the other night on my way home I leaned against a wall and listened to a dub bassline from a guy’s car for about 10 minutes!

I can’t wait for this album to come out, for people to hear it on record and at the shows, and I can’t wait to come back to Band on the Wall with my band and play it, do a full on show, play the new music here, that’s where the music belongs!

Pick up tickets for Arun Ghosh’s show on 13th October here.