Imrat Guitar: an espresso with Todd Mosby

August 30, 2019

Imrat Guitar

 

Open Waters is Todd Mosby's latest release; we interviewed the American musician.

> Iug Mirti


Could you introduce the "Imrat Guitar" concept to our readers?

The Imrat guitar is a new branch on the evolutionary tree of stringed instruments. It is an 18 stringed hybrid sitar guitar designed by sitar maestro Imrat Khan, guitarist Todd Mosby (me!) and luthier Kim Schwartz. The instrument is the first of its kind bridging the eastern and western music cultures. It can also be thought of as a contemporary harp guitar where the harp strings are pitched above the 1st string of the instrument giving it a more angelic type sound. The use of 11 sympathetic strings, 3 chikara strings, 4 playing strings and jawari allow subtle and melodic phrasing characteristic of sitar and the fixed frets and tuning allow for the modal chord harmonies found in jazz. The imratgitar combines the finest aspects of sitar and the first aspects of guitar to produce its characteristic sound and unique performance style. According to Ustad Imrat Kahn (sitar innovator), ”It sounds better than a sitar and better than a guitar.”

List of unique features special to this instrument include:

  • Contemporary Harp Guitar, strings pitched above the 1st string as opposed to below the 6th string.

  • 11 sympathetic 

  • 2 necks, 18 strings

  • 3 chikara strings

  • 4 main playing strings

  • D-D-A-D Tuning found in ancient Rudra Veena

  • Scalloped fingerboard

  • Extended width fingerboard for pulling up to major third

  • Jawari on electric version of the Imrat Guitar

The long neck allows for an easier horizontal performance stye and the tuning allows for a more vertical style of fingering as well. Horizontal movement provides the vocal style of phrasing that oud and sitar achieve. Vertical movement allows for the rapid technique and speed found on piano. The best guitar players in the world use a combination of both vertical and horizontal performance styles. 

The wide neck allows for much more controlled, nuanced pulling towards the 1st string as opposed to a less controlled pushing of the string towards the 6th string of guitar. The scalloped finger board offers maximum control of a pull and micro tonal inflection without digging fingernails into the fingerboard.

The sympathetics allow for maximum tonal resonance of the note being played thereby extending the decay length of the pitch. Having 11 sympathetic strings allows the ability to tune them to the scale/rag which is being played. This intern quadruples the natural tonal resonate of the guitar and at the same time allows a natural tonal harmony to blossom from any series of notes being played. An ethereal kind of harmony is created which is unique to this instrument. 

 

Your music is a mix of very different traditions: how do you write (and arrange) it?

The musical traditions I touch on are pop, folk, bluegrass, jazz , Indian and classical. These in turn spring from a deep seated interest in the music of these genres along with years of study. Authenticity was honed in the clubs, on the concert stages and various gigs in which I found myself performing full time trying to survive in Saint Louis. My early music genesis started with the folk music of the 1970s, bluegrass and a smattering of Billie Holiday, Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin.

Solid training at Berklee College of Music in Jazz Composition, Improvisation, Orchestration and Small/Big band arranging helped to cut the learning curve and offered valuable insight into the workings of music composition and performance. My studies with Imrat Khan became my post graduate work. Imrat gave me a solid understanding of Classical North Indian music, its history, philosophy, improvisation techniques and rag studies.

Much of the writing for this type of music usually begins with a chord progression which excites me, usually something I like jamming on and then melody. I write very quickly in this format which generally comes complete in the form of a few thoughts which I hear, commit to tape then transcribe later if needed.

When recording at Imaginary Road Studios with Will Ackerman and Tom Eaton at the production helm, instrumental arrangements grow organically from the basic tracks I initially lay down on guitar. We then build out the tracks layer by layer allowing for maximum isolation and the classic sound normally associated with Windham Hill recordings. Initial pre-production instrumentation is kept to a minimum. Will likes hearing a strong melody and musical form with dynamic shifts and extended sections to layer instrumentation over and build out the tracks as they go down. So, for Eagle Mountain and Open Waters I generally send Will 40-60 completed tunes of guitar chords, percussion and guitar melody and we whittled it down to 12 basic tracks for each project. In many ways it is like playing with one of the finest bands on the planet by the time we are done. 

Which were the musicians that made you wish to go to India to study?

Actually, India came to me. Imrat Khan lived right down the road from me in Saint Louis, MO.  Hearing the super group Shakti was very exciting for me. I loved the combined sound, composition and technical mastery of the musicians and instruments in that ensemble. Also from the age of about 12, I was listening to the music of north India and very involved with the timbral aspects of the instruments. George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh was a further inspiration. So I would say a solid smattering of John McLaughlin, Zakir Husain, Imrat Khan, John Coltrane’s explorations and the sound George Harrison was achieving with the use of sitar in popular music, all had an early influence and were guiding points.

I was also pulled into the technical mastery of Indian musicians and music they performed, especially since it was tonal. My technique on guitar was always a problem and I loved tonal music. Imrat gave me right hand/left hand technical drills which allowed for clean, fast, solid and rhythmically dead on note attack. 

When Imrat Khan came to Saint Louis, I learned he was India’s foremost sitar/surbahar player. He was also George Harrisons’ first sitar teacher and taught Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones as well.

What is Jazz today in your opinion?

Improvisation. Improvisation is not confined to any race, creed, religion, organization or institution. It is practiced by the majority of cultures who have music. It has been around probably since babies first started cooing in their whatever and humans first started speaking then placing the musical scale onto instruments. All the great classical composers were improvisors, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, List. 

A brief history; Jazz started as a stylistic improvisational approach in New Orleans, went up river to Saint Louis and then on to Chicago. From there it went East to NYC the West to Los Angeles and continued to develop. Jazz today in my opinion is any form which allows the open expression of improvisation, whether modal or over a series of non tonal chord progressions, incorporating new influences and instruments along the way. I do not feel it was ever meant to be a stagnant art form. It was always meant to be a dynamic, living and aural art form based in history and tradition yet totally representative of the current times in which it is played.  

One of the reasons Jazz concerts continue to be well attended is due to the fact the music changes from night to night. The solos are different each time which adds an unexpected feeling of immediacy to the presentation, especially when the artist is stretching. This emotional expression of musical pitch triggers an emotive response of the audience/listener.

“What happened to our freedom?”

Now, from a social perspective, if I were to gauge where Jazz was in the 20s-70s with the amount of musical freedom and expression there was then as compared to where it is today, I would have to ask the question, “What happened to our freedom?” This is another topic for another time. 

Which is the music you are listening to now?

I have recently been listening to the music of a lot of singer songwriters. If I were to sit down for a good listen then my go to is Takemitsu, his orchestrations and his chamber works. I love the music of the ECM label. I love the choir music of Holst, Gregorian chant, the music of Nishat, Imrat and Villiat Khan. I thought Brian Eno was on track with his Music For Airports. 

When I want to get back into some bebop and straight ahead Jazz I go straight to Wes Montgomery, Mike Stern or some Miles Davis. And drill down on Light As A Feather. I have always loved the singer songwriters and in particular Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, (early), Neil Young (early), David Crosby. 

When I want to get into Indian music I go straight to the Khan family and Harri Prasad. 

What I find myself listening to at any time depends on the type of music I am performing. I love listening to my peers, especially when Grammy time comes around. 

Which are your next projects?

I have an interim EP project of solo guitar which will be titled Wood & Steel. Most of the music is already written for this project and I have started performing it live in concert. I will use some of the tracks from this to work on the next concept album which will be titled Clouds. The music is already written for this project as well and it is to be the third in the trilogy of Earth (Eagle Mountain) water (Open Waters) and air (Clouds) 

What is the dream you would like to fulfill?

Really I think I am living it. But to add on and in addition to the above mentioned projects, I have some of my music for a nonet New Music Ensemble which I would like to track and have more performance opportunities. I also have some symphonic works which are slated for performance. It would be nice to share more of this music as well. Ultimately, I love sharing music with as many people who will listen in as many beautiful spaces as possible.

 

Imrat Guitar: an espresso with Todd Mosby copyright Jazzespresso 2019.

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