GUITARIST Reza Khota (pictured above) and I are reminiscing about growing up in Joburg’s Indian communities while we discuss music and sip on some masala chai tea I have prepared.
We’re both Jozi natives living in Cape Town and this city has been his home since 2006.
Khota has performed in various bands here, most notably Babu, but next week he officially steps into the role of bandleader when he launches his debut album with The Reza Khota Quartet, titled Transmutation. The album was recorded in Cape Town, mixed by Jonathan Crossley and mastered by electroacoustic artist Jeroen Visser in Switzerland.
Transmutation is a documentation of ideas Khota has been carrying in his head for a while now and the first canvas of his composing that fuses his classical back-ground with his love for jazz and rock music.
The quartet features Buddy Wells on saxophone, Shane Cooper on bass, Jonno Sweetman on drums and Khota on guitar.
Khota studied at Wits as a classically trained guitarist, but only got into the jazz scene when he moved to Cape Town. The first musician he connected with was drummer Kesivan Naidoo, when they were asked to play for the Indian Consulate, which resulted in an Eastern influence to their sound.
This directly led to what became the indojazz band Babu, which also included Cooper.
“In many ways, where Shane, Kesivan and I are at now musically comes out of Babu, in the sense of being driven by a deep spiritual adventure,” he says.
Babu was more of an Indian classical journey for which Khota composed most of the music.
“This album is more rockjazz, with influences from Stravinsky to John Scofield and The Mahavishnu Orchestra and the album’s compositions range from traditional jazz to Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child. It’s not new or unusual for jazz, and also the energy we play with as jazz musicians tends to go in that direction,” he says.
Khota says it was with the help of Sweetman that he really got things moving forward organically and aided the progression from his initial trio to a quartet. Last year, the quartet played The Cape Town International Jazz Festival.
“It is such a rewarding experience working with these musicians. We’re all interested in making good music and work very well together,” he says.
As for the writing process, he says it was quite different this time around and he developed a keen interest in what is going on in New York’s jazz scene.
“What’s nice about that scene and what resonates with us is that we also grew up with a less rigidly centred sense of music, and the new guys in New York are including everything from hip hop to electronica and African grooves. And a similar thing is happening here. We didn’t grow up only playing bebop or swing, nor do we subscribe to a kind of elitism of a music or jazz police mentality, so there was always a very eclectic influence with us.
“To be an improviser you have to be continuously honing your skills so that your ideas are fresh,” Khota explains.
His first musical encounters were with rock since it’s what he grew up with, playing in a high school band that did Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple covers. He started playing the guitar at the age of nine, with a strong influence from his father who also played. In his teens he started taking guitar lessons with mentor Faizel Boorany from Fordsburg.
Khota says: “He was my mentor and he opened up everything for me. We used to hang out on weekends and jam and he introduced me to Coltrane and Miles Davis and classical music. He opened my world and I was an impressionable teen so I was ripe and ready for everything, which I internalised. I was getting an education in all forms of music all at once. And at school there weren’t other people doing this, so that was my thing.”
It is incredibly unusual for a Muslim Indian Joburger to be gracing the stages of festivals like the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. During our interview, we connect on the difficulty of always being on the fringes of our Indian communities, not entirely fitting in anywhere because of what became increasingly conservative narratives.
He says: “My family were cool, firstly. I was always thinking for myself and had interests different from my peers. I was never a part of the pack. I was never a pack person. But you eventually find your people with the same kind of synergy.”
We both agree.
Transmutation was recorded in September at Sound and Motion Studios and is first available as a digital download and later in CD format. The album artwork was done by Bradley Abrahams (2Bop) and is referenced from vinyl covers of artists like Wes Montgomery.