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Guitarist Pritesh Walia Takes The Trio Guitar, Organ, and Drums To A New Level



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Pritesh Walia about his musical journey and about his new album, PSA.

Guitarist Pritesh Walia with Sharik Hasan on organ, and drummer Avery Logan. Photo credit above Joe Musacchia

A number of wonderful jazz guitarists have come from India in the last few years, one being Pritesh Walia.  Pritesh grew up in New Delhi and began his musical journey with East Indian classical music. Discovering jazz he moved to Los Angeles to study at the Musicians Institute and then to Boston to study at Berklee College and the New England Conservatory of Music.  In his new album PSA, he takes the trio of guitar, organ, and drums and moves it to a new level.  I asked Pritesh about his approach to playing and the new album.

JB:  Growing up in New Delhi, India, how old were you when you started to play jazz guitar and what was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist during those early years?

PW:  Growing up in New Delhi, I wasn’t really introduced to music until I was 13 years old.  Then I held a guitar in school during an Indian classical music class which was mandatory for everyone in the school. Even though the guitar only had 4 strings on it and it was pretty beat up, it never really stopped me from exploring this instrument. Even though Indian Classical was introduced to me early on in my childhood, I could never seem to find myself getting attracted to the music due to its abundance in India, Classical music was everywhere, and growing up it just kind of faded in the background for me. It was not until age 14 when I heard some rock music on the radio, I just couldn’t fathom, how the guitar was able to make those electrifying sounds. Instantly with the power of the internet and radio, I started listening to rock and roll music where the guitar played an integral role, and I started learning solos by ear and advancing my guitar skills. Being from a small town in India there weren’t a lot of avenues for me to learn from, and no formal music education was available, especially for Western Music or Western Classical music.  Hence, all my learning was self-taught in the beginning till I moved to the United States when I was 18 and started my first step into formal education at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles.

JB:  You studied at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, Berklee College, and New England Conservatory in Boston.  Did you study with any well-known musical personalities and what do you appreciate most about those studies?  

PW:  Musicians Institute was my first step into a world of formal education in music, where different aspects of music were taught in an organized fashion and I was able to develop my fundamentals. I spent over 10 to 15 hours in the practice room every day. Sometimes I would spend full nights practicing and go to class in the morning straight from the practice room, it was amazing because I had so much to learn and catch up to. This is the school where I was first introduced to jazz and completely remember being completely blown away by the sophistication and improvisational elements of this art form. It was extremely cerebral for me in the beginning, coming from India and having rock and roll music being my only influence on music, in its initial introduction jazz can be very intimidating, not just for me but for many musicians.

However, I was more curious, I wanted to learn this style of music, and I felt like I needed to decode it and get obsessed with the music immediately. Musicians Institute has some of the most amazing teachers like Scott Henderson, Allen Hinds, Dean Brown, and Russel Ferrante (from Yellow Jackets), who really helped me shape my skills towards my instrument and start understanding Jazz. Upon graduating from the Musicians Institute, I realized that even though I had made great progress on my instrument I found myself to have a slight identity crisis, where I felt like I only looked at music through the lens of a guitar player and there were way too many avenues in jazz that I hadn’t explored. Thus, I moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music, where I pursued a dual degree in Performance and Jazz composition, this school was a huge turning point in my learning career. The level of musicianship in jazz academia was on another level and I instantly realized that my journey had just begun. I started my journey at New England Conservatory to pursue my master’s in Jazz studies, this school really pushed me to develop my identity as a whole the artist that I have become which is also constantly developing. We were really able to explore music as a whole and develop what Jazz meant to me. Learning from the faculty who were jazz virtuosos changed my entire perspective on improvisation and composition and I was finally able to find my voice within Jazz as a whole.

Guitarist Pritesh Walia

JB:  What are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

PW:  I find this to be extremely hard to answer because there are way too many albums that come to mind that have impacted me as a player however, If I had to compress them into just three records then I have to choose the music that impacted me and left a mark on me as a musician. The first would be John Scofield’s A Go Go. This album was extremely impactful. Especially songs like “Chank”, “Hottenton” and “Jeep on 35”. John Scofield had an identity, right from the first note he played, you could tell it was him and that really made me question my musical identity. John had this insane perspective of space and a perfect blend of blues and jazz vocabulary that was very personal to him. No matter how much I transcribed him and his solos I could never sound like him, I could never make the instrument sing and be so harmonically sophisticated at the same time. 

The second record would be Bireli Lagrène’s Gipsy Project.  This record changed my entire perspective towards jazz and introduced this side of Gypsy jazz/“Manouche” style of playing the guitar. Tunes like “Coquette” “Swing 42” and “Embraceable You” from the record completely blew me away. Bireli had this unbelievable repertoire of jazz vocabulary with a heavy classical music touch to it with an insane and unachievable facility of technique on the instrument. This record still keeps me on my toes and I learned and transcribed a lot from this record as well as his duo records with Sylvian Luc. 

The Third record would be Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Standards Trio: Reflections. I feel like I spent over 2 years just listening to this record and dissecting it. Kurt has this unique modern sound on the guitar an Identity so unique to him, for example, the Guitar intro to “Ask Me Now” almost sounds like a pianistic approach toward chord melody playing on the guitar. Having studied guitarists like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, and many other traditional jazz guitar players, Kurt just sounded like he had an approach to the instrument that was not even guitaristic anymore, which is very fascinating to me with his use of effects and pedals, with the pick attack being cut out, and the synth/flute sounds he uses on occasion, and just a variety of soundscapes he is able to produce with these newer electronic elements. His use of chord voicings is also so unique to him. It’s interesting how most of his voicing are extremely pianistic which makes sense because he studies piano and actually even has a solo piano record out there. Also, in tunes like “You’ve Changed”, which I transcribed the full song the day I heard it, I love how Kurt has the ability to be vocal when he plays melodies, he ornaments it like a vocalist. On this record, Kurt also played Wayne Shorter’s song “Fall”. I had never heard this tune in a modern setting, with a back beat-ish groove and ethereal soundscapes with extremely lush voicings with bits of beautiful improvisation weaved into the compositions. You can clearly hear that Kurt is pushing the boundaries of the instrument, drawing inspiration from sax players, pianists, and many other electronic elements and modernizing the jazz sound, which has been extremely impactful to me and I have been extremely inspired by his work on how he continues to push those boundaries.

JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it’s at today?

PW:  Apart from being able to give masterclasses in festivals like the Panama Jazz Festival, playing alongside some amazing musicians in my music academia journey, and representing/endorsing my favorite guitar brand “Collings Guitars” alongside my favorite artists like Julian Lage, and Bill Frisell. I would say my highlight for this year specifically, has been to be nominated for “Best Jazz Artist of the Year” by Boston Music Awards alongside artists like Terri Lyne Carrington and Grace Kelly, I am extremely humbled to be noticed by Boston Music Awards for my hard work in the jazz community in Boston. I would also say playing shows with saxophone legends Bob Sheppard and Godwin Louis has also been extremely pivotal in my career and has definitely helped to boost my career forward.

JB:  Tell us about your goals in making your new album PSA with Sharik Hasan on organ, and drummer Avery Logan.

PW:  The goal of the PSA Trio is to modernize the sound of the traditional organ trio in jazz. Organ trios have been a huge part of the jazz repertoire and we wanted to bring a newer and fresher perspective to the sound. Each track serves as a sonic landscape unto itself, showcasing the trio’s commitment to modernizing the organ trio sound while paying homage to its rich heritage. From the jazz/bluesy swing feel of “Cliff Dunes” to the hard-hitting groove of “Circle Around,” PSA Trio weaves a tapestry of sonic innovation that captivates listeners from start to finish. With tracks like “Dogwood,” the trio ventures into uncharted territory, blending electronic production techniques with the traditional organ trio format to create a sound that is simultaneously familiar and otherworldly. Throughout the album, the interplay between guitar, organ, and drums is nothing short of mesmerizing, with each instrument pushing the other to new heights of musicality. 

JB:  Tell us about Hope Town which will be released in July 2024.

PW:  My debut album as a leader, Hope Town, is not just a collection of songs; it’s a deeply personal journey, a musical narrative that encapsulates my growth as an artist over the span of seven transformative years. Collaborating with the exceptionally talented bassist, Chris Worden, and drummer, Gen Yoshimura, this album is the culmination of countless hours of dedication to the craft of composition and guitar jazz trio exploration.

JB:  What influence does your native Indian music have on your compositions?

PW:  I believe that Indian music doesn’t have a direct influence on my music. Since the beginning Indian classical music has always been seen as a form of background music from where I came from. Even though it has a long tradition, it was easy to take this music for granted due to its abundance. I believe that feeling led me to look in a different direction musically and chase something that is completely different like rock and roll and other Western forms of music. However, I do think subconsciously the general ideology of interplay and improvisation has seeped into my playing and I do feel that comes from Indian classical music on a subconscious level. I feel like I have the same idea of collective improvisation that Indian classical music offers and the same rigor of exploration that is also seen in Indian music. All in all, I think Indian classical music has impacted me on a philosophical level more than having a direct relationship with the music.

JB:  Tell us about the guitar and amp that you use.

PW:  Well, I am extremely fortunate to be playing Collings Guitar for almost everything jazz and even music outside of the jazz sphere. These guitars are handmade to perfection and they allow me to get the straight-ahead jazz sound as well as a modern sound with pedals. I use many different amps, However, for PSA Trioand my Hopetown record I used a Fender Deluxe Reverb. This amp just provided clarity and crispness to the tone and also lets me manipulate it using different pedals. For local gigs I use a DV Mark Jazz 12, this amp is extremely light, easy to carry, and provides an exceptionally beautiful clean tone which is slightly more bassy than the Fender amps that seem to be more midrange-focused. Both amps are beautiful and extremely eclectic providing a bunch of different sonic possibilities.

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