Clarinetist Shankar Tucker Connects Musical Cultures



By Samir Shukla


American clarinetist and composer Shankar Tucker created the online video series “The Shrutibox" to bring his love of Indian music to a wider audience. Tucker studied clarinet at the New England Conservatory, but he is no slouch playing an array of instruments including piano, tabla, guitar, and bass. He was drawn to Indian classical music early in life and honed his clarinet mastery while listening to and delving into the techniques of Indian classical music. A few years ago, Tucker traveled to India on a grant and studied Indian music with flute master Hariprasad Chaurasia. This immersion inspired Tucker to explore the possibilities of melding musical cultures.

Tucker's world is where jazz, Carnatic and Hindustani music, and western classical music converge. On his new recording Filament, he explores multiple hues of clarinet joining different Indian vocalists and musicians with meditative as well as joyous compositions. Although Tucker is the leader and composer, the album is a collaborative effort. This is fusion, yes, but it also something new and whole. It's a musical tapestry with folk songs, improvisational pieces, and classical compositions all drawing from a wide pool of accomplished musicians in India and the U.S. The recording is a collection of instrumentals and vocal tracks. Tucker creates videos to accompany the tracks on the album and is posting them online as time permits.

I spoke with him on the phone recently and asked about the process and approach to his recent project and music in general. “It started with how I kind of do all my recordings," he explains. “I record some ideas on my computer, make a demo track. The songs kind of kept on expanding and changing over the course of a couple of years. The demo tracks evolved and grew. As more live musicians came on board it wound up way farther than what I initially thought. I named it Filament because I got the idea that the project was to find a new way to trace a path between two musical cultures I grew up with. Western classical music and jazz in the US and Indian music that I studied in Mumbai and the idea of tracing a line creating something new that's the concept behind Filament.

It's not a recording studio project done over a week or two. I rarely record two musicians at the same time. Musicians have their own comfort zones, and that's fine. But if I'm trying to push them to go into different area. If I'm trying to get a string quartet in New York to play Indian music or if I'm trying to get a harmonium player in Mumbai to play with a rhythm section, its often a little bit out of their comfort zone and what I need to kind of work with musicians and work part by part. It's not something everybody can do once in the studio. A part of that is also I really value musicians coming from different places. I often travel to different parts of the world and take my laptop and microphone and find best musicians of the culture where that's rooted. Bringing together people from different parts of the world but for one recording."

Tucker said he mostly records on the US East Coast and in London as well as India. “There are phenomenal musicians there as well as in India, Mumbai, Chennai, Kerala."

Most musicians usually rent studio space and make a recording in a specific amount of time or over several sessions. I asked Tucker how he managed to create a cohesive recording like Filament when the tracks were recorded at different places in several parts of the world. Tucker explained, “Interestingly I'm a big fan of traveling to musicians' home to record them. A lot of studios are now just recording booths in a really quiet room. There are some places that have larger rooms that have a great sound and atmosphere. In India where a lot of film work is being done, they're just kind of dubbing. I actually find it more effective to go to someone's house if it's quiet enough. I've done about half of the recording that way."

I asked him that recording at someone's home in India must be challenging, to say the least. Indian cities are filled with a cacophony of sounds floating into households. He laughed and said, “I just avoid ambient noise. I do a lot of audio repair later on the quieter tracks to dig out some auto rickshaw or other noise."

So how does he work compositions?

“I have two ways of approaching it. One is that I often do compose parts precisely on a computer (and) lay out some parts for someone to learn, other part is that musicians know their instruments better than me, so they will often come up with some parts that sound a lot better and more natural for them to play. After they play that part I will ask them to improvise something or see if they will actually add to it. After they record six or seven different takes and I will go back and edit down to see what sounds natural."

I asked about the different musicians, young and legendary veterans he has played with.

“The people I've really enjoyed playing with recently are I guess the younger generations. The next generation of Indian classical maestros. The first track (on Filament) vocalist Ankita Joshi is a disciple of Pandit Jasraj and is a rising star in the classical vocal field. People like that don't feel they have a burden of their classical career to uphold so they are into exploring new ideas. Not strictly into any one raga. Older ones (musicians) are brilliant but may not want do something like that. I like to explore different sounds, right now I'm listening to a lot of electronic music. Find new ideas about music that no one has really heard before."

The recording Filament is available as a download album at various music retailers. There are currently no tours on the schedule. Find more information about Tucker at www.shankartucker.com.