Beer Puppets’ music belies its members’ ages. Three twenty-something musicians who are whipping up frothy jazz, R&B and neo soul.
In India, jazz suffers from a bit of a betrayal. The old-timers love only a part of it (the old one of course) and scoff at anything that doesn’t feature an eight-member horn section and at least a two-minute long scat. The younger lot, on the other hand, claims to love all the above-mentioned features but wouldn’t be caught dead at a jazz fest populated with silver haired, chutney-sandwich-eating septuagenarians still going limp in the knees every time the band belts out a ‘Satil doll’ or a ‘Girl from Ipanema’. Of course, there is no space for any other form of jazz in India. The diverse voices – call them avante garde, contemporary or what have you - are mostly relegated to remote niches, and are yet to master the art of slick social media music updates, glib indie-music-gone-to-the-dogs rants and the usual Facebooking of today-I-ate-falooda-and-farted-funny.
It is only natural then that real lovers of jazz in India – one that embrace it in all its wildness and complexity – have till date been quite an unhappy lot. ‘Where do you even find a band that plays exciting jazz or a nightclub that regularly features them?’ is the usual litany. Yes, it does take hard work – relentless Facebook stalking and YouTubing - to find good, and most importantly, refreshing and non-cliched jazz music in India.
I remember, after watching Kolkata-based jazz singer Sonia Saigal and pianist Harmeet Manseta perform at a concert in Delhi eight years ago, I went crazy trying to find a video or at least some audio tracks of their original music. But there was nothing to be found. Both these musicians were both veterans and superlative in the crafts so it baffled me as to why their talent remained just a pleasant surprise you came across at a gathering. Around the same time, there were hundreds of bands – good, badly, ugly and some even unworthy of ever being on stage – using platforms like YouTube and Reverbnation to their advantage.
Things have changed a lot now. Sonia has quite a few videos on YouTube, and there are a handful of bands that are producing good stuff and promoting it too.
One of them is Kolkata-based Beer Puppets. The band comprises core members Shreya Bhattacharya on vocals, Avishek Dey on bass and Srinjay Banerjee on guitar. All three are alumni of Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, Chennai (SAM). “The band was formed on December 2014. The repertoire is pretty open ranging from standards and straight ahead jazz to contemporary R&B, neo-soul and jazz fusion,” informs 22-year-old Shreya.
I stumbled upon the band while watching the latest videos on Kappa TV’s Music Mojo. Besides the three of them, their performance on it features Colombian pianist Caroline Calvache and Mexican drummer Karina Colis.
“The collaboration happened at SAM, where these guys were our faculty. A connection happened between us when we collaborated on some gigs in Chennai and they were interested in participating in this project,” remembers Shreya whose silken voice proves its mettle on Al Jareau and Gretchen Parlato with equal finesse.
She grew up in a house where The Beatles records shared space with Bon Jovi. “I just used to enjoy hearing them and till then I had no professional training where I used to sing for my school choir,” she says. Bandmate Abhishek, 23, on the other hand, comes from a musical family. “My dad taught me music since I was a child. And then I started developing myself listening to jazz, and transcribing them note for note,” he says. Srinjay, 29, was initially trained in classical piano. “I shifted to guitar when I was in high school and am purely self-taught on the instrument,” he informs.
Ever since their videos went online, Beer Puppets have been receiving lauds from many seasoned jazz musicians in India, who’ve been happily sharing away their music. In today's time of electronic music, the band is one of the very few young artistes who are playing jazz. Are they happy about it? “Everything has its place. Perhaps there is a glut of EDM which might to a certain degree marginalise other styles, but subsequently it would draw in the people who really connect with this particular music,” says Shreya.
But surely they must be some big-ass challenges in being a band that plays the kind of music they do? “Sometimes there may be preconceived notions about the music... Occasionally thus, one can run into a labyrinth when booking gigs, promoting the material and communicating what the music is all about,” she says.
By and large, Beer Puppets’ music points to a heartening trend in the indie music space – of musicians that perform jazz coming out of their dens to follow the path that their indie rock band counterparts take: that of making good original music together, releasing and promoting it. The band is currently gathering material for their debut album. “We definitely take pleasure in crafting our sound and presenting a valid musical alternative to established trends,” says Shreya.
Given their style, they don't have to try hard doing that.
All images: Beer Puppets