Fareed Haque's latest gambit: Riffing with India's Saxophone Sisters

 Guitarist Fareed Haque

Guitarist Fareed Haque (Wes Pope, Chicago Tribune / June 23, 2006)

The uncommonly versatile Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque juggles so many musical identities and languages that listeners can be sure of only one thing: They'll never hear him sounding the same way twice.

Consider the show he's playing Sunday night at SPACE in Evanston, where Haque's trio will share the stage with the Saxophone Sisters, a pair of reedists from India who delve into aspects of that nation's music not often encountered on two saxes. And certainly not in the company of a jazz guitarist who has incorporated music of his own South Asian heritage into various aspects of his work.

The double-bill will culminate with Haque's trio improvising alongside sibling saxophonists, a sound never heard before, since these musicians never have collaborated. They've been brought together by the Eye on India Festival, unfolding this month in Chicago and other cities.

"The Sax Sisters and their band are a very different kind of sound," says Haque. "It's much funkier, bluesier" than the Hindustani form of Indian classical music that many American listeners associate with Indian culture. "Of course the south of India is hotter and the music tends to reflect that. It's very jungly."

A quick visit to YouTube confirms the intense, hard-driving nature of the Saxophone Sisters' music, and it's easy to imagine how its improvisational syntax and charismatic nature would suit a jazz environment. Particularly in the company of Haque, who long has worked at the intersection of jazz and the music of various ethnicities.

"There's a very strong tradition of brass music in Southern India … you'll have 200 to 300 horn players on the street all playing Indian melodies," says Haque. "These (are derived) from the military bands that the British developed" in colonial India.

"So the Sax Sisters come out of that tradition. … They've melded the brass tradition from the British bands background to the Carnatic wind instruments (of southern India). They've created this real hybrid, and they're real virtuosi.

"I don't necessarily like to do collaborations where we're kind of thrown together, but because they're not self-consciously world music but very organically so, that's where I'm coming from. It seems to be a very natural fit."

Jazz devotees will hasten to point out that musical and cultural traditions from India have lured jazz artists for a long time, with musicians such as John Coltrane and John McLaughlin finding inspiration in this part of the world. Haque feels that his collaboration with the Saxophone Sisters could represent a somewhat different twist on this approach than, say, Shakti, McLaughlin's India-influenced band of the 1970s.

"Shakti was an interesting group because two of the musicians were Carnatic musicians, but I think the dominant influence was John McLaughlin and (tabla virtuoso) Zakir Hussain," says Haque. "And the group ended up leaning more toward the Hindustani sound, even though there were a lot of Carnatic influences.

"But when you hear the Carnatic music in its own element, it's really different. Very funky, and not the same kind of formal classical esthetic that you get from Hindustani music."

Haque's experiment with the Saxophone Sisters, however, simply will set the stage for his next musical adventure. Later in the summer he'll play a major concert in Millennium Park on the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series featuring his jazz trio and quartet, plus his Flat Earth Ensemble spotlighting musicians from around the world. That program, on Aug. 21, will include Haque's guitar arrangement of the Argentine bandoneon virtuoso Astor Piazzolla's "Five Tango Sensations," which Haque will perform with the Kaia String Quartet.

In the meantime, Haque has been immersed in the Quintetto for Guitar and String Quartet by the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, which Haque recently recorded and will excerpt during Millennium Park marathon.

For all the breadth of this musical activity, however, Haque has been slowing his touring schedule a bit, he says, for personal and professional reasons. The illnesses that his parents have faced prompted him to "stick closer to home and perform only those projects and gigs that made sense," he writes on his website. "Amazing how life works out. More demands to focus on what's important both in my musical life and outside of it."

The breathing room has helped in many ways, he says.

"Now I do a major festival, do a few gigs around it and then come home," explains Haque, who's also a professor of music at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "It's opened the door for me to do these kinds of events that are more meaningful artistically. …

"So things are good. What's nice is, as crazy as [Haque's schedule] sounds, I'm actually working at a much more measured pace now."

And still searching for new idioms in which to make music.

Also worth hearing

Freddy Cole: Nat "King" Cole's younger sibling often sings "I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me," and he's right about that. Though there's no mistaking certain similarities between the two musicians, the gravel of Freddy Cole's voice and breeziness of his pianism distinguish his work from anyone else's. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4,8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $25-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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