Bassist Harish Raghavan has had a prolific career playing sideman to some of the biggest names in modern jazz music. Yet it took him over ten years since establishing himself in NYC to record under his own moniker. His debut album Calls for Action (which you can stream below), out now via Whirlwind Recordings, is a profound accomplishment, both refined and thought-provoking, and features a slew of rising stars breathing youthfulness and fresh ideas into the music. We caught up with Raghavan to discuss Calls for Action, his creative process, and his advice for young musicians. His album release show takes place on December 11th, 2019 at the Jazz Standard in NYC.
You moved to New York City in 2007 and have since performed and recorded with the likes of Ambrose Akinmusire, Kurt Elling, Taylor Eigsti, Vijay Iyer, Charles Lloyd, Walter Smith III, Logan Richardson, and Eric Harland. You’re undoubtedly one of the most esteemed bass players on the jazz scene today. Why did it take you so long to record your debut as a leader?
Harish Raghavan: I was eager to record but I had this caveat: I wanted to play a tour with the same band and then record. None of the compositions on the record were composed before I had this working band. I’m not sure of the exact number but I wrote over 30 pieces during the year we were playing together. Most of them were never played by anyone, but at a certain point, I decided I was going to compose just to compose with no restrictions on whether it had to be performed. This took a lot of pressure off of the composing process for me. Now it became about starting and finishing something, which I still struggle with. I think I’ve gathered some tools and inspiration to continue the process.
Can you tell us about some of the lessons you learned from others up to this point in your career?
Harish Raghavan: One lesson I learned from playing with trumpet players and vocalists was the importance of routine. More specifically, developing a pre-performance practice routine which eventually will transcend into other pre-performance practices or rituals. Most of the people that I play with have a very strong connection to where they grew up and the musical history surrounding those cities and communities. From early on, this inspired me to focus on bass players from Chicago. Their diversity and individuality certainly had a huge impact on how I play and I hope my sound.
Calls for Action features a quintet comprised of yourself and four rising stars, namely alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Micah Thomas, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and drummer Kweku Sumbry, all in their
early 20s. You are presently 37 years old. Why did you select these particular musicians and can you tell us about the group dynamics and each individual’s personal contribution to the whole?
Harish Raghavan: I was looking for group dynamic more than any single player’s sound. I met all of the musicians from playing their shows in New York. I helped Joel with his record and that’s where I really got to hear Immanuel Wilkins and Joel together a lot. Then I played a few shows with Immanuel’s band and kind of just combined the two. Kweku Sumbry comes from a percussion background and so do I. I felt an instant rapport with him and the pianist Micah Thomas. We worked together for a year. I did my first quintet gig on December 10th, 2017 (my mother-in-law’s birthday), we recorded December 2018 and we’ll be doing the album release show December 11th, 2019 at the Jazz Standard.
Stream Harish Raghavan’s Calls for Action album
The album features 15 original compositions, drawing inspiration from the Art Ensemble of Chicago,
a monochrome photograph by American photojournalist W Eugene Smith, thoughts on an older generation moving on, growing up in the United States as a person who does not look “American”. Can you tell us more about the themes explored throughout the record, your creative process, and the album’s key message and takeaways?
Harish Raghavan: My composition process for most of the pieces began as improvisations of bass. I would record myself playing for a few minutes daily for a week and then listen back to the recordings several weeks later. Time allowed me to listen without judgment and try and to hear things that sparked ideas. Quite a bit of the music is full improvisation or pieced together from the same session. I think and hope that my composing grew throughout this process and continues to grow. I even programmed the first vinyl side, Side A, to feature a suite of the first compositions written for the group. I hope people enjoy the music and takeaways would just be subjective, but if they enjoy the music – even if they just listen – that’s enough for me.
Who are some of the artists you admire most, whether musicians or others? What are you listening to,
reading and/or watching these days?
Harish Raghavan: Right now I’m reading Coltrane on Coltrane and I’m always going back to A Power Stronger Than Itself. That’s one I come back to often: since it’s so dense, it takes me a few readings to really get the info. I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. One label I’ve been into is ESP Disk and I just acquired M’Boom, Milford Graves and Sonny Morgan Percussion Ensemble which I’ve also had in the mix along with some Brazilian records I got from a recent trip.
What are your thoughts on the state of jazz music today and the direction the genre is currently being taken on?
Harish Raghavan: The state of affairs is quite strong. I don’t subscribe to the idea that improvised music is dead or anything like that. It is very much alive. When I was in college, almost no one was getting record deals. People were winning the Monk competition and receiving no contracts. That has made a 180 turn so I see that as positive progress. I don’t think the music is going in any one particular direction. As always, it continues to expand on all spectrums – now more so then ever.
Do you have any advice for the young musicians out there trying to make a name for themselves?
Harish Raghavan: Rather than focusing on “making a name” for yourself or whatever that means, focus on progress. Just focus on getting better on your instrument (and as a person) every time you play. For a while, you’ll be able to accomplish that goal daily and then the periods tend to get longer, from days to weeks or even months. But if you focus on progress then you’ll continue to get better and you will get more joy from playing.