Lovers of jazz can expect fresh originals, much-loved standards, beautiful ballads and Brazilian music along with Cuban-inspired tunes at this year’s edition of the NCPA International Jazz Festival.

By Narendra Kusnur

At last year’s edition of the NCPA International Jazz Festival, German pianist Thilo Wolf enthralled the audience at the Tata Theatre. He played on the final day of the festival, accompanied by his quartet and vocalist Johanna Iser. Besides the originals ‘Tessa’s Waltz’ and ‘Coke Masala Blues’, the repertoire included compositions of George Gershwin, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

Wolf and Iser are returning to open the festival this year, but this time they will be accompanied by a big band, comprising four saxophones, three trombones, three trumpets, piano, bass and drums, in addition to singer-guitarist Torsten Goods and vibraphonist Florian Bührich. Their show will flag off what promises to be a three-day jazz extravaganza. On the second evening, popular American pianist Emmet Cohen will be joined by trumpeter and vocalist Benny Benack III, bassist Philip Norris and drummer Kyle Poole. The final day has a double billing, beginning with Cuban pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and his trio, and culminating with a set by American vocalist Jane Monheit.

From the schedule, it is evident that there will be a wide variety. Wolf will focus on big-band grandeur, Cohen will play many originals, including some from his albums Future Stride and Uptown in Orbit. He will also play some recognisable tunes after he can “see the room, feel the audience and be like a live DJ”. For his part, Rodriguez blends jazz piano styles with hints of his Cuban heritage. Monheit says the Mumbai set will “include tunes that span my career, lots of swinging, a few great ballads and plenty of beautiful Brazilian music.”


Thinking big

Each musician has a different approach to live performance. Wolf, for instance, says, “Big bands have fascinated me since childhood. It’s a very special sound, with a power and dynamic of its own. Count Basie once said the most beautiful instrument is the big band, and I can only agree.” Naturally, Basie is one musician who created an impact on Wolf, the other being Glenn Miller. Inspired by his father’s record collection, he decided to get deeper into jazz, especially big bands.

While Wolf’s set is usually dominated by standards, he loves writing original music too. ‘Tessa’s Waltz’ is for his daughter, though he wrote it much before her birth. ‘Coke Masala Blues’ was a completely spontaneous idea. He recalls, “The night before the concert, we tried the drink of the same name. We decided we would rather have Coke and the spicy masala separately, but Johanna spontaneously sang it in the concert.”

The 56-year-old pianist and bandleader says that while Iser is excited about their second show, the presence of Torsten Goods is a bonus. “Both are exceptional singers, and moreover, Torsten is also a brilliant guitarist. Florian Bührich will continue in the tradition of great vibraphonists such as Lionel Hampton or Terry Gibbs,” he says, adding, “What will not change from last time is the overall joy of playing.”


Great influences

The other groups are making their debut at the festival. Miami-born pianist Cohen will play here a year after the sensational performance of his idol, Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander. He recalls, “I saw Monty when I was 13 or 14. I loved the way he played and smiled, and wanted to be like him.”

Now 33, Cohen started learning piano at the age of three. He says, “I was trained under the Suzuki Method and that’s interesting because it teaches you to play by ear, which lends itself to becoming a jazz musician. In jazz, you have to be able to hear things, internalise them, be able to respond quickly and play back.” Having become a fan of Alexander, Cohen naturally drifted towards Oscar Peterson. “I fell in love with the language of jazz, and the way musicians communicate with each other. I got to hear all styles, though bebop appealed to me the most. I got into big band music, old-school stride piano and even later-day players like Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner,” says Cohen, who also plays the Hammond B-3 Organ.

In 2016, Cohen started producing a series of albums, live interviews and performances as part of the Masters Legacy Series. Here, he has played with drummers Jimmy Cobb and Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath, bassist Ron Carter and saxophonists Benny Golson and George Coleman. The latest volume features saxophonist Houston Person, who performed at the NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in 2013. Cohen says, “The thought for the series came after I sat with Albert Heath when I was around 21 and he told us stories about the legends. I got a feeling for the music from his stories. So, the idea is to carry on the legacy and introduce it to the young generation.”


Cuba meets Miami

Cuban-born pianist Rodriguez’s latest album Coral Way is inspired by Miami, which is also Cohen’s city of birth. Though the album embodies his Cuban roots, the sound is a result of his move from Los Angeles to Miami, where his family settled after the birth of his daughter. “I play what I live, and Coral Way is my new life. It is the name of the street I have been living in for the past three years,” he says.

Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, 37-year-old Rodriguez’s love for music blossomed early. His father was a singer, but since they did not have a piano at home, he painted piano keys on the dining table to practise scales. Though he studied percussion and piano, his passion for jazz was ignited when an uncle gifted him a record of pianist Keith Jarrett. In 2006, he was invited to represent Cuba at the Montreux Jazz Festival, where he impressed legendary producer Quincy Jones. He thus got invited to play in the U.S., and eventually relinquished his Cuban citizenship.

Rodriguez has released six albums under Mack Avenue Records. At the Mumbai show, one may expect tunes from these records, including ‘Guantanamera’, which earned him a Grammy nomination in 2015 for best instrumental arrangement.


Vocal verve

While the first three acts will be led by pianists, the finale will feature some immortal standards by vocalist Monheit. “My special guest will be the legendary Joel Frahm, one of the greatest tenor players of all time. We’ve worked together for well over 20 years and this will be an extremely joyful reunion,” she says about the saxophonist and fellow New Yorker.

The 45-year-old singer says jazz was her focus from early childhood. “I started singing professionally at 16 and was making records by 22. Ella Fitzgerald is my queen. She’s been a massive influence on me, not only as a musician, but as a person. She spent her life spreading love with her music, and that’s all I want to do,” she points out.

One of Monheit’s popular albums is the 2016 release The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald. In 2021, she released Come What May, a collection of jazz standards including ‘Lush Life’, ‘The Nearness of You’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’. She says, “I think it’s really important to be sincere when you sing a standard. So I chose songs that reflected where I was at the time, newly in my 40s.”

The singer’s other love is Brazilian music, and she cites composer and performer Ivan Lins as her hero. She elaborates, “When I went on my first Brazilian tour, Ivan came to see me sing. I recorded the ‘Love Dance’ duet with him, and now write English lyrics for him. I’m prouder of my work with him than of anything else I’ve done.”

Monheit’s mix of standards and Brazilian music should act as a perfect summation of three days of musical magic. The stage is set for some sublime jazz.


This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of the On Stage.