Perfect Sound Forever

Meet Bishu Chattopadhyay

Bishu Chattopadhyay. Photo by Ron Mathews.

Jazz Bassist, Composer, Band Leader, Border Explorer
By Kurt Wildermuth
(December 2022)

In life, in art, and where life and art intersect, finding a form represents at least half the battle. In the music of the New York City jazz bassist and composer Bishu Chattopadhyay (Chatterjee, in the name's shortened Anglophone version), that part of the battle is won, decisively, by Chattopadhyay's side. That's a fanciful way of saying that his pieces differ from one another formally, and each time the decisions feel just right. The compositional shapes match the subjects--the content--and the playing fills in those shapes, creating a journey within prescribed limits. Chattopadhyay's music knows its boundaries, but it also knows that within borders exist areas of exploration.

Consider "Midnight Rickshaw," the opening track on Chattopadhyay's 2021 album, Kolkata Stories. In fact, don't just consider it. Go to Spotify or Apple Music and listen for yourself. I can think of no better selling point for Chattopadhyay's music than hearing a perfectly executed track such as this one. Kolkata Stories is so cleanly and richly recorded (at Brooklyn's Bunker Studio) that even when played as mp3s on a tablet the tracks sound full-bodied, as though the musicians are playing in the device. If you like what you hear--if the expressive acoustic bass tones, the spirited instrumental interplay speak to you--you'll want to explore further.

Still, since I have you here, let me give you my take on "Midnight Rickshaw." The track opens with a burst, taking us straight into the action. The bass has a presence and interacts with urgent cymbal from drummer Evan Hyde and percussive piano from Davey Lantz. In fact, fascinatingly, bass and piano intertwine to the point of sharing identities. This conversation includes a note of competition, as though what needs to be said is up for grabs. Suddenly, the melody that has been hinted at comes to the fore with a burst of horns (Jasper Dütz on sax, David DiTrapani on trumpet). The horns carry us down some curving path, then a break returns us to that initial interplay, the bass creating exquisite textures while giving room to the piano and drums.

Live in NYC. Photo by Ben Akselrod

One obvious point of comparison, given that the composer of "Midnight Rickshaw" plays the bass, is the towering figure of Charles Mingus. In an email exchange with me, Chattopadhyay confirms that "Mingus as a composer has been a tremendous inspiration for me, and it was a spiritual experience to perform on the same stage with the Charles Mingus Dynasty orchestra in the Kolkata International Jazz Festival. Unfortunately, by then Charles Mingus had left the Earth, but the orchestra kept him alive." And if we hear shades of Thelonious Monk in the more wayward improvisations, "who has not been influenced by the compositional brilliance of Thelonious Monk?"

But the track's only half over. As the rhythm section continues to cook, Caroline Bugala enters on violin, taking the melody in directions that start to feel like Indian music, then leading back to some virtuosic piano. The vertiginous quality suggests the rickshaw is descending an incline, perhaps even bumping down some steps. Around the corner, though, the horns return and right the ride, reiterating the melody, taking us into the distance.

Similarly, on the title track of Kolkata Stories, Kana Miyamoto's flute leads the way, and the track presents wayfinding, as though the city of Kolkata delivers many stories for those willing to search, to wander. What is Kolkata like? I ask Chattopahyay. How does it compare with New York? "Kolkata is very much like New York," he answers, "with its dense population, poets, arts, etc., except for the money one sees in New York. Both of these cities have a long tradition of creative and progressive activism. Of course, during the lockdown Kolkata resembled a ghost town."

Kolkata Stories, it turns out, has a Kolkata story. In March 2020, Chattopadhyay returned to his native Kolkata to visit family for two weeks, "when Covid started and the lockdown began," he tells me. "As a result the airport and many services were shut down. For three months, I could not leave India. The lockdown provided an excellent opportunity to write these compositions."

Chattopadhyay defines his musical mission as exploring "the intersection of jazz and Indian music." You can hear that exploration loudly and clearly on "Ustad Rashid Khan's Tree," whose title refers to a real tree. During the lockdown, Chattopadhyay explains, "I was staying next door to singer and composer Ustad Rashid Khan. In 2020, Kolkata experienced a devastating cyclone, 'Amphan,' that destroyed many homes. There was a giant Radhachura tree, three or four stories high, just outside Rashid Khan's house that was completely destroyed in front of my eyes from this mad storm."

During the track's opening, Chattopadhyay bends his acoustic bass notes until they sound uncannily like a sitar. After the introduction of piano and horns, the vocalist Armaan Khan, Rashid Khan's son, delivers an unmistakably South Asian melody. But then the West returns in the form of saxophone, though the playing here brings to mind John Coltrane and Charles Lloyd, both of whom drew on Indian music. Cultures meet and fuse, with a natural beauty that has absorbed the piece's violent origin.

This music is both grounded in tradition and given to taking unexpected flights. It reflects learning and experience, artistic maturity and the freedom to invent that can be conferred by maturity. The newcomer to Chattopadhyay's music will not be surprised, but may be wowed, by his background.

After learning the tabla and the cello, Chattopadhyay played drums in the Kolkata group he helped found in the 1970s, Moheener Ghoraguli. In the 1980s, while still with the group, Chattopadhyay began playing the double bass. He has studied with such bass masters as Johannes Weidenmueller and the venerable Ron Carter.

Carter, of course, has a long and storied career. Among his most famous gigs was as a member of Miles Davis's second quintet. That 1960s ensemble comes to mind on Chattopadhyay's "Dusts of Fear," where DiTripani's trumpet is prominent. As on Davis recordings such as Miles Smiles, this music combines accessibility and challenge, tradition and avant-garde, sedateness and propulsiveness, a rootedness in melody and a willingness to push angles in odd directions until they're sharp.

On "Mango Afternoon at Sonali and Swapan," over romantic (not Romantic) piano and a samba rhythm, Bugala's violin gives us the sweet flesh of the mango with its hints of tartness as notes go in unexpected directions. All ends well, though, as the conclusion presents the equivalent of a musical smile.

The stunning "Shivaji's Harmonium" complements sax and trumpet with Joe Davi's guitar solo, the players not seeking to outdo each other but to reach the height of thoughtfulness and expressiveness.

Just when you think you have a handle on what this album delivers, you encounter "Bengali Night with No Moon," an intense jazz-pop song with English vocals by Stav German. The 1970s folk-rock of Richard and Linda Thompson comes to mind, perhaps if they'd collaborated with Mingus and Monk.

If you have already been enchanted by Chattopadhyay's bass, don't miss the album's finale, "Saraswati I Two Basses," where the second bass is played by Weidenmueller. Student and teacher bow and pluck, plus tap on the wood as a percussion instrument, employing various expressive possibilities of the bass. The result could be a duet between tabla and sitar, until it fades out in an indication of continuing into the distance.

The mastery at work here represents the culmination of a journey. Previously Chattopadhyay has performed at major venues in the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Armenia. He has played with the Indian classical singer Rita Sahai, the saxophonist Bishop Norman Williams, the drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey, and the trumpeter Roy Hargrove. In NYC, he leads two bands, BC All Stars and BCjazzNow, and belongs to the composers collective Otonal.

You can also find him on YouTube.

At the San Francisco Jazz Heritage Center. Photo by Beverly Al-Kareem

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