Electric Jazz?

Nakul Mehta, part of India’s billionaire elite, is almost casual about his job description at Bharat Bijlee- referring to it as ‘a typical CEO role’.

Then there’s his not-so-typical role as jazz saxophonist.

“I studied classical piano for about eight years as a child. Many years later, after I was 30, I picked up my father’s old alto sax,” he revealed, “My parents both loved jazz- so, it was in the house from the time I can remember. I made the inevitable detour into rock in my teens, but jazz has always been the first love.”

After he took up the saxophone, the artiste spent about five years studying with the legendary Micky Correa. “He was a gentle disciplinarian, and that was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time,” he recalled, “I play tenor sax now, and sometimes the soprano.” As for the acts he is currently associated with, he said, “Right now, I play with KontraBand, which is a sextet that mostly plays post-bop material. Also with Junckt, which began as a sextet in 2006, and is now a fluid collective that has a versatile and funk-tinged sound, and plays a lot of original material. Occasionally, I do play in an acoustic trio format at small clubs; or whenever someone is kind enough to invite me to sit in!”

Considering his responsibilities at Bharat Bijlee, how often does he get to play? “Until recently, there used to be a lot of night-spots in Mumbai that featured live jazz. Sadly, almost all of them have disappeared, or mutated into something different. Presently, Shisha Cafe in Pune, is where both my bands play quite regularly. I try to put in at least half an hour or 45 minutes of practice a day. It’s not enough, but better than nothing.”

And what does he think about the jazz scene in India? “Jazz anywhere in the world is a niche musical form. And, by accident or design, it’s been positioned here (in India) as a rather elite lifestyle choice. The audience has remained tiny, and that’s self-fulfilling- it feeds on itself: fewer musicians, fewer places to listen, and fewer places to play,” he said. However, he does feel that Mumbai has some world-class jazz musicians like Sanjay Divecha, Adrian D’Souza, Tala Faral, Louiz Banks and Harmeet Manseta. “And one shouldn’t forget the amazing jazz festivals organized – against the odds – by the NCPA, and by Jazz India and Capital Jazz before them.”

Shifting focus to his lucrative day-job, Bharat Bijlee Limited is one of the market leaders in Transformers, Projects, Electric Motors, Elevator Systems and Drives, and its manufacturing facilities are located on a 1, 93,000 square meters campus in Navi Mumbai. It has branches in thirteen Indian cities, and has maintained a strong growth path. “My vision for the company is simple- innovation and profitable growth,” he said, adding, “So much has been written about jazz as a metaphor for management, and about how it’s almost a cliché. But there is a lot of truth to this,” explained the no-nonsense businessman, “Creativity and innovation are so central to the endeavour, but so are stability and discipline, synchronisation and teamwork. Management is as much an art as it is a science.”

Jazz on the go:

When I travel, I look at the local listings and see who’s playing. I’ve been fortunate to be able to listen to giants like Joe Lovano, Jim Hall, Esperanza Spalding, Zoot Sims, Scott Hamilton and Billy Taylor in intimate night-club settings and to chat with them between sets.

Mehta the archivist:

“Archivist” suggests being meticulous and organised: I’m more of a chronic packrat; it’s only recently that I’ve got around to digitising and cataloguing old photographs and concert programmes, and other paraphernalia. What’s encouraging is that some of this material seems to have enduring value in a time-capsule sort of way, and can even be an important piece in a historian’s jigsaw puzzle. I’m glad it’s been useful to Naresh Fernandes for his book “Taj Mahal Foxtrot”, and to Susheel Kurien who has just made a wonderful film about jazz in India called “Finding Carlton”.

My top artistes

Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Paul Desmond, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Joshua Redman, Miles Davis, Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis… there’s a whole pantheon to worship.

Inspiration has come in many forms, including from a couple of Mumbai musicians who are and have been gurus to me, and musicians passing through, all of whom have been remarkably generous in sharing their knowledge and offering guidance. I’m still learning…

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