At age thirteen, saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan entered a kind of journeyman-apprenticeship that doesn’t really exist these days. It didn’t really exist back in 1996, either — but the stars just happened to align for Radhakrishnan, and he got “discovered” the old-fashioned way. He was a second-generation kid living in Phoenix, where he played in the middle-school band. A family friend invited him over to her house to meet Kadri Gopalnath, a famous practitioner of South Indian carnatic music who happened to be touring in Phoenix. They clicked, and Gopalnath took him on as a disciple, housed him in Mangalore, India, for four summers, and subjected him to a rigorous daily routine. Within four years, he had developed a style of music with no historical antecedent.
“I had zero interest in Indian classical music,” said the 27-year-old saxophonist. “I wasn’t against it, I just wasn’t interested.” Radhakrishnan came from a family of music aficionados, but none chose music as a profession. Even his teacher had no concrete aims. When the two first met, Gopalnath taught Radhakrishnan a few Indian scales and listened patiently while the young sax player tooted through his school band material. “He didn’t train me from day one to be his successor,” said Radhakrishnan. “In his mind, I’m gonna become a doctor or engineer.”
Today, Radhakrishnan is best known as the leader of VidyA, a jazz trio featuring David Ewell on bass and Sameer Gupta on drums. He conceptualized the group about ten years ago as a means to present a vast arsenal of original compositions. Radhakrishnan’s music straddles a thin line between two traditions — jazz and carnatic music — but tries to conserve the integrity of both. That’s a tall order, he said. “One of the biggest challenges is to not make either of the kinds of music sound wrong, or bad, or kind of cheesy — you see what I’m saying?”
Radhakrishnan is anything but typical. He performs in a long tunic called a jubba, which is traditional apparel for South Indian men. Local artwork adorns the walls of his apartment, and the Mead notebooks on his desk are filled with lyrics written in Sanskrit. When he’s playing an Indian classical concert, Radhakrishnan sits on the stage with his legs crossed. His face is a study in self-composure. He grew up listening to all the giants — Trane, Bird, Wayne Shorter — and he has the ingrained groove of someone who worked hard, studied a lot, and ultimately found his own voice. But he’s working in a form that’s entirely outside the jazz idiom. He’s trying to achieve the forward motion of jazz without the harmonic changes.
“I think they’re playing in nine,” said one audience member at the Red Poppy Art House, counting beats on his fingertips. Correct, Radhakrishnan said later. The song is called “DSH,” and it requires Ewell to play four- and five-beat bass lines over and over again, while Radhakrishnan zigs and zags over top.
VidyA’s music is hard in the sense that it requires the three musicians to know two forms of music very well, and meld them together without stepping on either one. South Indian music is similar to jazz in that it starts off with a through-composed part called a krithi, then delves into long improvised sections using the main line of the song as a leaping-off point. But Indian music is structured around ragas (elaborate melodic modes) rather than chord changes, so it often requires the players to stay in one key for an entire song. For Radhakrishnan, it’s critical to hew to that form. “If you’re playing a bunch of chord changes, and just playing some Indian scales, they’re not Indian ragas,” he explained. “They’re just scales and any jazz musician can do that.”
Indeed, a lot of modern jazz musicians add Indian elements to their music — usually as a stylistic flourish or intellectual curiosity. Radhakrishnan is much more purposeful and directed. His music has jazz grooves, asymmetrical rhythms, and in-the-moment improvisations. It swings like jazz. But it’s also deeply rooted in South Indian tradition. Radhakrishnan says he became conversant in both forms almost by happenstance.
The process by which he learned is called gurukulem, and it’s exactly what the word implies. “These days, everyone studies by going to their teacher for an hour, going home, going to a teacher for an hour, going home,” said Radhakrishnan. “In India the traditional method is you live there, study with him, and do everything for him.” In this case, Gopalnath was the guru. He taught Radhakrishnan how to play by rote, usually by singing the melodies and requiring the saxophonist to write them down, or play them back on his horn. During his summers in Mangalore, Radhakrishnan woke up at 5 a.m. and practiced all day, every day. He stood in the corner and practiced while Gopalnath said his prayers. Gopalnath brought Radhakrishnan on tours, made him load up the equipment, and had him sit at the back of the stage, counting beats on his fingers.
To call that “arduous” would be an understatement. But the rigors of gurukulem paid tremendous dividends for Radhakrishnan, who spent the rest of his high school career studying jazz at a similarly intense level. At home he listened to every horn-playing legend in the Blue Note catalog, played in the all-star jazz bands, and eventually went on to study music and international relations at USC. After graduating, he got a performing arts fellowship from the American Institute of India Studies, which allowed him to spend a full year working in India. He formed VidyA in 2005 and recorded the group’s self-titled album in late 2007. Roughly translated, the band’s name means “knowledge” or “pursuit of a higher purpose.”
“The first chapter was to bring these two forms together and have a natural sound without stepping on either side too directly,” said Radhakrishnan, who is working on a second VidyA album. The next phase, he says, is to meld jazz and South Indian music in an even more intricate way.
With a Zellerbach grant and two concurrent artist residencies — one at Oakland Asian Cultural Center, the other at Red Poppy Art House — Radhakrishnan stands at an interesting juncture in his career. He’s aware of America’s obsession with Indian imports (in everything from Zakir Hussain to Slumdog Millionaire) but he’s also wary of anything with East-West cachet. In fact, Radhakrishnan is somewhat of a traditionalist. He traffics in hybrid forms but fixates on purity. Some listeners compare his material to Coltrane. The analogy doesn’t make that much sense to Radhakrishnan, except on an abstract level. “I think it might be because of what he was chasing for with some of the Indian music he studied,” the saxophonist said. “He was going for that spiritual aspect. My teacher gave me that from the beginning, so it’s just kinda been a part of me.”