‘Saxophone is my instrument for this lifetime’
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Dressed in a light brown kurta-pyjama, Boston-based Phil Scarff looks comfortable sitting cross-legged and holding his saxophone in position. What follows are renditions of Hindustani ragas flowing easily from the Belgian instrument, taking the audience by surprise.
The ease and precision in notes, Scarff says, have come after years of single-minded devotion and passion. "Since there was no teacher who played Hindustani music on the saxophone, I had to develop techniques on my own. A few gurus were even sceptical about the idea initially, but soon supported it," says the 56-year-old, who visited the city for a performance organised by Maharashtra Cultural Centre at Sudarshan Rangmanch on Thursday.
Music, he says, was something he grew up with because his mother was a vocalist. At the age of eight, he began learning the piano, then moved on to clarinet, followed by the saxophone. By the late '70s, the saxophone became his primary instrument. "I never considered learning an Indian instrument because that would be another lifetime's project; saxophone is my instrument for this lifetime. When I developed an interest in Hindustani music, it was natural for me to adapt it to the saxophone. I am inspired by shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan. I have used the shehnai and, to a lesser extent, the flute as models for adapting music to saxophone," says the artiste.
As a jazz musician, Scarff was curious about different approaches to improvisation. In the early '80s, he was introduced to Hindustani music by his colleague Warren Senders. Hindustani music, he says, shares a lot of characteristics with jazz but has very significant differences and offers different frameworks for improvising.
"Learning about these different frameworks for improvisation is what attracted me to Hindustani music," adds the musician, who trained in the genre in Pune under vocalist Pandit Shreeram Devasthali and shehnai master Shyamrao Lonkar, three decades ago. Since then, he has had several performances across India and in North America. In 2010, he released a music CD titled Ragas from Dusk, which was recorded during his tour to the country. Featuring renditions of ragas such as Puriya, Bihag, Jaijaivanti and Bhairavi, the collection received much acclaim.
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