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A salute to Soli Sorabjee, jurist and jazzman

To mark Soli Sorabjee’s birth anniversary, jazz enthusiasts have organized an online concert on 9 March with musicians from Pune

(left to right) Sanjay Divecha, Rahul Wadhwani and Adrian D'souza

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Among the most decorated and respected names in India’s legal history, Soli Sorabjee is found in textbooks because of his work as solicitor general of India and later, attorney general of India. A mainstay when it came to the country’s understanding and association with human rights, Sorabjee was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2002, two years before he stepped away from his role as attorney-general. 

While legal chambers and courts may have been Sorabjee’s battlefield by day, jazz festivals and Indian classical concerts were his playground by night. A clarinetist who enjoyed swing and the American big band movement, Sorabjee was enamored by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. He was based in Delhi when he was called upon by Niranjhan Jhaveri in Mumbai to create an international festival Jazz Yatra in the late 1970s, along with Kolkata-based jazzman and advertising professional Stanley Pinto. 

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A seminal part of jazz history in India, Jazz Yatra was later christened Jazz Utsav and brought in several artists to not only grow interest in the genre in India but also become one of the long-running music festivals from 1978 onwards. Along the way, Sorabjee forged valuable friendships in the arts world. Although he passed away in April last year owing to complications from Covid-19, the late jurist and jazz lover’s birthday on 9 March gave impetus for a tribute concert ‘Salaam Soli’ this week. It is organized by Kaladharmi, a non-profit organization founded by dance and music exponent Rita Ganguly, a friend of Sorabjee. In jazz and her work as a thumri artist, Ganguly draws a connect in terms of improvisation being a core element. “It encourages you to go out, explore and come back–this was the trend 2,000 years ago. The same as jazz,” says Ganguly, who trained under illustrious vocalists such as Siddheshwari Devi and Begum Akhtar. 

‘Salaam Soli’, a two-day online jazz concert which takes place on 5 and 6 March, on Kaladharmi’s YouTube channel, carries forward Sorabjee’s proclivity for jazz. Ganguly and her actor-daughter Meghna Kothari, along with music journalist and educator Lalitha Suhasini, have put together three artist performances, recorded by filmmaker Yudhajit Basu. The line-up features Pune’s jazz cats like guitarist-composer Vinay Kaushal, bassist Jayant Sankrityayana, percussionist Varun Venkit, multi-instrumentalist Shreyas Iyengar on drums and vocalist Pratika Gopinath for the first performance. It will be followed by veteran vocalist Sonia Saigal and pianist Harmeet Manseta in a minimal vocal-piano performance. Lastly, jazz veterans including guitarist Sanjay Divecha and drummer Adrian D’Souza team up with bassist/keyboardist Rahul Wadhwani for a set. 

Kothari, who handled the production work for Kaladharmi with ‘Salaam Soli’, says that while recording an improvisation-conducive style like jazz music has its own limitations, they had a good time adapting. This is Kaladharmi’s first online jazz concert series. “This is a new genre for us and this is just the beginning,” she says. “In this studio format, we don’t compromise on the sound. The sound is as per the artist’s wish.” 

The performers were conscious of the camera at the beginning, but being parched of jamming over the last two years due to the pandemic, they quickly dissolved into the pulse of things. Drummer Adrian D’Souza, who went to Jazz Yatra with his father when he was in class 8, says he last played a jazz gig before the first lockdown in early 2020. Once in the studio room with Divecha, a collaborator of more than 15 years, and Wadhwani, the trio asked one another what they were going to play. “We had 40 minutes to figure out. We picked out five songs, at a certain kind of tempo and feel. We asked, ‘Does everyone know the chords?’ That’s all it was,” he says.

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While D’Souza got to meet Sorabjee on occasion at concerts, Divecha has a different connection. The guitarist says, “Although I didn’t know Soli as a person, there’s an incredible family connection. Both our fathers were lawyers–Soli’s first gig as a lawyer was given to him by my grandfather.” 

Sonia Saigal hasn’t built up the nerve to rewatch her performance for ‘Salaam Soli’, which includes jazz standards like Night And Day, Night in Tunisia, Man I Love and Nina Simone’s My Baby Don’t Care. “I wish musicians always have an audience, because it always makes a big difference,” she says. Raised in Delhi, Saigal’s parents Don and Jenny were both close to Sorabjee, as was her stepmother, the late jazz vocal great Pam Crain.

Compared to seasoned artists like Saigal, Divecha and D’Souza, a younger artist like Vinay Kaushal (32) regards ‘Salaam Soli’ as a way to strengthen a niche community of jazz lovers in India. “Non-mainstream styles of art always need patrons to flourish. Today's jazz scene in the country has its audiences in niche, strong pockets, but misses a connoisseur like the honourable Mr. Sorabjee,” Kaushal says. The Vinay Kaushal Collective performed a few of their own jazz songs, including a new song called Elephant In The Room. “The song talks about social justice and rights, both topics that were a big part of Mr. Sorabjee's work, so it seemed an apt occasion to present the song. The set is recorded live, complete with some great moments of band members feeding off each other's energy, exactly like a live performance,” Kaushal notes. 

That sort of energy is exactly what drew Kaladharmi and Ganguly to hosting jazz artists. She says, “I discovered the jamming and jazz through Soli. He used to do Jazz Yatra, brilliant work. Every youngster should thank him for keeping jazz alive in India.” 

The concert is being livestreamed on 5 and 6 March on Kaladharmi’s YouTube channel and will remain there for repeat viewing.

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