Jai Uttal & The Pagan Love Orchestra | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Jai Uttal & The Pagan Love Orchestra 


Jai Uttal may be the very definition of a "world" musician. Born in New York, he studied classical piano as a child, then took up harmonica and banjo. In the late 60s, as his musical tastes turned to psychedelic rock and John Coltrane, his instrument of choice became the electric guitar. Shortly after beginning college in Oregon, Uttal encountered an Indian master of the 25-string sarod, Ali Akbar Khan; he dropped out of college and for the next several years studied sarod and yoga at Khan's school in northern California. During one of many pilgrimages to India Uttal went to Bengal looking for a wandering tribe of street musicians called Bauls. He found and later lived among them, communicating only through music. Their seminomadic existence--sustained by a belief that blends elements of Sufism with tantric Buddhism and Hinduism--and their serene, mantra-filled chants continue to inform Uttal's musical and personal life. Several of the instruments he now plays--including the dotar (a sarod relative) and the gubgubbi--come from the Bauls' repertoire. Back in the U.S. in the 80s, Uttal toured as a guitarist in punk bands as well as in an avant-garde crossover ensemble that mixed African and Caribbean rhythms, R & B, and jazz improv. But he returned to south-Asian-influenced music on 1991's Footprints (Triloka), his CD debut. He then put together a band, the Pagan Love Orchestra, whose members include Irene Sazar (a classical violinist), Peter Apfelbaum (a noted Bay Area saxophonist and composer), and Geoffrey Gordon (a percussionist and Uttal's longtime collaborator in chanting workshops). The crew broke a bit of new ground with their first album, Monkey, casting Indian instrumentation and melodies in a Western context by fusing ragas, bhajans, jazz, and rock. At times their liltingly atmospheric music sounds sort of New Age, but a riff of unexpected grittiness or ululating folksiness always manages to recall the roots of Uttal's inspiration. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Bennett Hall, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 728-4642.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jai Uttal.

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