The National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) recently staged a night of Jazz fusion, titled ‘More Than Jazz’ at Zia Mohyeddin Theatre. Featuring Lenny Massey and directed by Arsalan Pareyal, the night was possibly more of a spiritual connection, with attendees dressed in formal attire. Along with Pareyal, the evening also featured Jamal Yousuf, one of the faculty members at NAPA, who also elaborated the event with European classical sonatas and preludes.
On a warm summer day, I used a rare opportunity to visit the living legend, Zia Mohyeddin, and meet with Arsalan Pareyal, who is not only a music educationist but also possesses musical diversity as he walks a wavering line between contemporary composer, jazz fusion guitarist and Rubab player. He started his music education at NAPA, with a keen interest to explore Pakistani traditional music as well as jazz, which particularly enabled him to make his presence felt in the Karachi landscape of music.
Mentored by the guitar virtuoso Amir Zaki, he took music seriously and joined his alma mater as faculty member to impart knowledge about jazz theory and improvisation, and advance rhythm techniques. He has also represented the academy several times at Butler School of Music at the University of Texas in Austin, where he studied music education, human learning, advance jazz theory and composition with Brian Pardo and Jeff Helmer. Also the founder of jazz trio The Karachi Jazz Band (with saxophonist Daniyal Riaz and pianist Jamal Yousuf), he is actively involved in developing music curriculum for schools and nonprofit organizations to promote the culture and education of music.
Speaking to The Friday Times – Naya Daur about how jazz has evolved in Pakistan, Arsalan Pareyal says, “During the Cold War in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a Jazz ambassador program funded by the US State Department, whose basic idea was to counter the Soviet Union in terms of promoting culture. They sent black musicians all over the world, to North and West Africa, Europe, and even South Asia. One of the famous musicians that came to Pakistan at that time was Quincy Jones among several others. They tried to collaborate with Pakistani musicians. They met in clubs and pubs in the Metropole area of Saddar. There was the Goan Christian community that also played jazz nights. So, the evolution of jazz was much more in effect in the 1960s.”
The musical evening was emotionally impressive as it wrapped up the audience in calm, fluent and gorgeous yet complex renderings and dreamy textures. While one could enjoy slow tempo peaceful quietness, there was also an equilibrium of brilliant mysticism, possessing clear, unambiguous personal touches. It breezed past various styles and forms, each treated in a way that made it glow with new life. The combination of strength and delicacy was faultless. We have become so used to jazz treatments, sometimes quite brilliant ones, of standard tunes, that a straightforward rendition comes as quite a surprise. So I may have been a shade perplexed by rapturous choral sounds, but one could easily relish a unique contemporary sound palette with plenty of characteristically freewheeling jazz detours on the way.
Speaking about the challenges to bring this evening about, he reminisces, “I was worried about how the audience would receive this new form of music and thus, presenting something that would allow them to connect with easily was a challenge. There were some compositions like Jay Jay wanthiblues, which primarily has raag-based melody. So people who can listen to eastern classical music can be more receptive towards it, with tweaks of jazz fusion.”
Another challenge that he faced was the time duration because there was also a classical performance in the beginning, with 30 minutes of classical piano so one knows that the audience is already in a specific zone of European classical 17th-century music and it was a feat to bring them to a different era of swing and jazz music, at the same time making sure they stayed connected. They also performed a jazz version of “Aitebar,” a Vital Signs tune.
Inculcating a sense of music and sound from early on is equally important for music learning. “There are two important aspects to this. How true, passionate and honest one is towards this form of art. Secondly, a good teacher is equally important to help one choose a path. If one has already chosen a path, he/she will help you direct effectively towards it. Both of these elements are missing from today’s education. Yes, people are passionate about music, but it is more geared with the objective of achieving popularity,” mentioned Pareyal.
There was a sudden boom experienced in the pop culture in the 1980s and ’90s, but we didn’t see any jazz musicians coming out of it.
“Although there was the great Amir Zaki, who also strived to bring jazz music studies in the local education, there wasn’t much happening in the jazz circuit. It is also because jazz is music form that requires rigorous practices and technical understanding that doesn’t coincide with the musical culture we have. In early 2000s, when NAPA was in its budding stage, the curriculum entailed rock fusion. Later on, the academy successfully signed an MOU with the University of Texas in Austin and some of the students were sent across in an exchange program to study classical music and could chose an area of interest in music. I, too, was a part of it, and I chose to explore jazz. So we are trying to bring back the culture of jazz to Karachi, the way it was a regular part of the nightlife of the metropolitan city of Pakistan,” he explains.
In Pakistan, we have seen only few genres being promoted:
“When I was growing up, I was exposed to quite a few of them like, rock guitar and pop music. So when there are no platforms producing varied genres, the audience finds it difficult to resonate with an alien form of music. Therefore, it is important to expose them to different sounds and build a taste for it,” said Pareyal. Whether music is innate or taught, he opines, “Talent does help but this art can also be taught. Moreover, jazz is one of the most complex music forms that we have around here, with complicated harmonic structures and improvisations. So of course, it takes a while to get the groove, but with persistence, you can master it.”
This sweet din of magnificent melodies was the most assured musical evening in a long time to get engrossed in, with ecstatic piano and orchestral wallops, ensuring that we ascend to spiritual new heights.