CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Indian classical music dates back more than 3,500 years. Even if you have no clear notion of what the music sounds like, you probably can conjure images of the sitar, a guitar-like instrument with many more strings and a gourd-shaped body, or the tabla, a pair of drums (one made of clay, the other of wood) that are played with intricate finger strokes.
You would not expect to hear a saxophone in such an ensemble.
But saxophonist George Brooks has been playing with Indian classical musicians for more than 30 years. You can hear how that unlikely combination works when he joins bamboo flute player Ronu Majumdar and tabla player Ramdas Palsule for a concert at the India Center at 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Brooks is a jazz musician and composer who has collaborated with the avant-garde American composer Terry Riley many times. I talked with Brooks by telephone when he stopped at a coffee shop in Berkeley, Calif., to take a break from driving to a performance.
I wanted to know how he approached playing a Western instrument in a non-Western musical group.
He said, "You have to be familiar with Indian classical music. I have been studying it for over 30 years now. But, like any improvisation, it requires a lot of listening."
Indian classical music is derived from melodic cycles (ragas) and rhythmic cycles (talas). Brooks says understanding them is a requirement to play with other musicians.
Ragas are vaguely like Western scales, whether tonal or modal, but he says ragas have a lot more pitch hierarchy than a scale.
"In a scale, you have the tonic, which is the most important note. But in a raga, certain notes have to be emphasized along the way before you move to other notes that are emphasized."
Those emphases must be done in the proper order at the proper time. And when you play in a different raga, things change.
"Certain melodic movements are required depending on a raga," he said.
So as an improvising jazz musician, who would be used to trying anything he wanted to try, well, that wouldn't work. He adjusts to the style of Indian music.