Badal Roy, who fused Indian rhythms with jazz, is dead at 82

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Badal Roy, who fused Indian rhythms with jazz, is dead at 82
Badal Roy during a performance at Town Hall in New York, May 9, 2008. Roy, an Indian tabla player whose drumming propelled East-West fusions for some of the most prominent musicians in and out of jazz, died on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Wilmington, Del. He was 82. Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times.

by Jon Pareles

NEW.- Badal Roy, an Indian tabla player whose drumming propelled East-West fusions for some of the most prominent musicians in and out of jazz, died on Tuesday in Wilmington, Delaware. He was 82.

His son, Amitav Roy Chowdhury, said the cause was COVID-19.

Roy was largely self-taught. He was not trained in the Indian classical apprentice tradition of gurus and disciples. Where classical tabla players use a pair of differently tuned drums, Roy sometimes used three or four. His improvisational flexibility and his skill at sharing a groove made him a prized collaborator for jazz, funk, rock and global musicians.

He first became widely known for his work in the early 1970s with English guitarist John McLaughlin and Miles Davis, appearing on Davis’ pivotal jazz-funk album “On the Corner” and its successors. He went on to many other collaborations,— recording with Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Mann, Yoko Ono, Bill Laswell and Richie Havens — and spent more than a decade as a member of Ornette Coleman’s electric band, Prime Time.

Amarendra Roy Chowdhury was born Oct. 16, 1939, in the Comilla District of what was then British India. (The area was later part of East Pakistan and is now in Bangladesh.) His father, Satyenda Nath Roy Chowdhury, was a government official in Pakistan; his mother, Sova Rani Roy Chowdhury, was a homemaker. “Badal,” which means “rain” in Bengali, was a childhood nickname.

An uncle introduced him to the tabla and taught him its rudiments: the vocal syllables that denote specific drum sounds. Later, in New York, he took some lessons from Alla Rakha, Ravi Shankar’s longtime tabla player. While growing up, he was also a fan of Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. His introduction to jazz was hearing Duke Ellington perform in Pakistan in 1963.

Roy wasn’t planning a career in music when he came to New York in 1968. He intended to earn a Ph.D. in statistics.

To support himself, he worked as a waiter at the Pak India Curry House and found a weekend gig playing tabla with a sitarist at A Taste of India, a restaurant in Greenwich Village. McLaughlin was a regular there, and he sometimes sat in with the duo. After a few months of jamming, he asked Roy to join a recording session. The resulting album, “My Goals Beyond,” released in 1971, was an early landmark in Indian-influenced jazz.

McLaughlin was also working with Miles Davis at the time, and he brought Roy to Davis’ attention; when Davis was appearing at the Village Gate in 1971, Roy’s duo auditioned for him during a break between sets at A Taste of India, carrying their instruments a few blocks down Bleecker Street. Davis called on Roy for a 1972 session that also included McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock on keyboards and Jack DeJohnette on drums.

In an interview with an Indian newspaper, The Telegraph, Roy recalled: “All of a sudden, Miles tells me: ‘You start’ — no music, no nothing, just like that. Realizing I have to set the groove, I just start playing a ta-ka-na-ta-n-ka-tin rhythm. Herbie nods his head to the beat and, with a ‘Yeah!,’ starts playing. For a while, it’s just the two of us, and then John and Jack join in. Then all the others start and, to me at least, it’s pure chaos. I’m completely drowned out by the sound. I continue playing, but for the next half-hour, I can’t hear a single beat I play.”

Those sessions yielded Davis’ “On the Corner.” Roy joined Davis for other 1972 sessions that contributed material for Davis’ “Big Fun” and “Get Up With It,” both released in 1974, and performed with him at Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at Lincoln Center for what became Davis’ 1973 album “In Concert.”

Roy received a copy of “On the Corner” when it was released in 1972. But after his frustration at the sessions, he didn’t listen to it until the 1990s, when his son, then a graduate student, told him, “All the hip-hop guys are sampling it.”

In 1974, Roy married Geeta Vashi. She survives him, along with their son and Roy’s sisters, Kalpana Chakraborty and Shibani Ray Chaudhury, and his brother, Samarendra Roy Chowdhury. He lived in Wilmington.

Roy backed saxophonist Pharoah Sanders on the albums “Wisdom Through Music” (1972), “Village of the Pharoahs” (1973) and “Love in Us All” (1974), and in later years performed with Sanders onstage. With the saxophonist Dave Liebman, who had been in Davis’ group, Roy appeared on “Lookout Farm” (1974), “Drum Ode” (1975) and “Sweet Hands” (1975). (“Sweet hands” is the translation of a Bengali term praising a virtuoso tabla player.)

He released two albums as a leader in the mid-1970s, both featuring Liebman: “Ashirbad” (1975) and “Passing Dreams” (1976), which also included the Indian classical musician Sultan Khan on sarangi, a bowed string instrument.

Roy performed and recorded widely, often as part of cross-cultural fusions. He had a longtime duo with the bansuri (wooden flute) player Steve Gorn, which appeared regularly at the Manhattan restaurant Raga. He shared the 1978 album “Kundalini” with the American jazz clarinetist Perry Robinson and the Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. In the early 1980s, he was a member of the flutist Herbie Mann’s group and appeared on the 1981 Mann album “All Blues/Forest Rain.” He also recorded with the composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell; with the trombonist and conch-shell player Steve Turre; with Yoko Ono on her 1982 album, “It’s Alright (I See Rainbows)”; and with Brazilian guitar duo Duofel, Japanese bassist Stomu Takeishi, bassist and producer Bill Laswell and Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider.

In 1988, he joined Ornette Coleman’s band Prime Time, and though the group rarely released studio albums, he appeared on its final one, “Tone Dialing,” in 1995. In the early 2000s he was a member of Impure Thoughts, a group led by keyboardist Michael Wolff. Roy also recorded often as a leader, collaborating across idioms and styles.

In an interview for All About Jazz, Roy emphasized that his solos were about “telling a story.” “I go with the groove,” he said, “and then go free.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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