Trilok Gurtu

Catching Up With

Trilok Gurtu

by Ilya Stemkovsky

The more things stay the same for this highly unusual drummer, the more they need to change.


Trilok Gurtu will always be unique. His mixture of traditional Indian rhythms and jazz played on a customized hybrid kit looks and sounds singular, from the tabla to those amazing toms that sound like kick drums. But if you’ve seen Gurtu play recently, you might be surprised to see an actual bass drum in his setup. “I had an operation on my meniscus and cartilage,” Gurtu says, “so I could not kneel and play. So I played the same thing, but sitting down. Then I thought, Well, I have one leg free—why don’t I use a bass drum?

“I used to play a normal kit in India,” Gurtu explains. “When I came to the U.S., I realized that I would not sound like myself if I tried to imitate all the great drummers here. So I made the change of making the drums sound like the tabla. But my bass drum technique is very basic. I can’t play like the metal drummers. It just helps me get a push if I need it.”
That push is heard on Gurtu’s latest release, the exciting trumpet-heavy jazz-fusion album Spellbound. “My intent was using all these different musicians from different parts of the globe,” the drummer says. “Turkey, Beirut, Norway, Italy, Germany, the U.S. Each CD has to have a theme. So they asked me to do a record of jazz. And I said, ‘You mean improvised music?’ If it’s confined to jazz, I’m left out, because I’m not a jazz purist. I love jazz, but I wasn’t brought up with it. Jazz for me is the freedom of improvisation, like Indian music is. I found this cassette of me playing with Don Cherry. So I wanted to dedicate the album to the trumpet, which has contributed to many kinds of music—world music, Cuban, Indian. If you want to overrate something, overrate music. Don’t overrate a name given to music.”

Spellbound shows Gurtu at his best, swinging and laying it down on everything from tunes made famous by Dizzy Gillespie to a wicked 5/4 take on Miles Davis’s “All Blues.” And as Gurtu matures, so does his relationship to playing, composition, and improvising. “It’s getting deeper,” he insists, “and the more spiritual part of it is coming out through my spiritual master, Ranjit Maharaj. There’s no fear or doubt about who likes it or doesn’t like it. Things have changed and I’m more relaxed. I compose
a lot. And it’s more confined to music, not to chops.

“I don’t make things tricky just to make it complicated. Simplicity has to sound complicated, and complicated has to be simple to play. Musicians would sometimes tell me that something sounded easy but it was hard to play. This is the biggest compliment you can get. Look at Sly Stone with Greg Errico, or James Brown. Sounds simple, but to hold it and play it is not an easy thing. Jazz players can’t do that. They want to change every two seconds. Once the intention is there, even complicated things sound simple.”

So what’s the big-picture outlook for someone who has played so much high-wire stuff over the years? “Before, music was taking me,” Gurtu says, “but now I say, ‘I will take you. I’m the boss.’ I will conduct now. Whatever I practice now has to groove and sit. People have to move. That’s the aim behind it, even if it’s free. I’ve gotten away from all the notes, from all the intellectual wrestling. Listening to jazz, nobody could dance or swing. Most of it was chops and complicated harmony. If the musicians don’t get it, the people are lost. You’ll have ten, twenty people
in the crowd. Dance. Like Monk. He had that.”
Ilya Stemkovsky

November 92 Modern DrummerTrilok Gurtu appeared in the November 1992 issue of Modern Drummer when he was fully engaged in John McLaughlin’s groundbreaking trio. Between releasing solo albums and appearing as a sideman for a variety of artists, Gurtu was a member of the group Oregon and has collaborated with Zakir Hussain, Jan Garbarek, and Joe Zawinul.