Jai Uttal Looks To Pagan Past On Spirit Room

Indian-influenced artist's new album recaps previous releases, including Don Cherry collaborations.

Los Angeles singer and multi-instrumentalist Jai Uttal has played guitar in Motown cover bands and busked for change in Northern India with spiritual street-singers the Bauls of Bengal.

These disparate influences come together on Spirit Room, a varied sampler compiled from four prior albums by Uttal and his Pagan Love Orchestra on the Triloka label.

It's all just music for Uttal, whether playing old-time banjo licks Roscoe Holcomb-style or leading a chanting retreat in Fiji.

"I respect all these musicians and their traditions so much," Uttal said, "that I don't feel I'm at all casual about it. I'm not throwing Indian music in as a spice or trying to be fashionable."

Now in his late 40s, Jai (born Douglas) Uttal — the son of a music-business executive — was raised in New York. There, he took piano lessons before picking up banjo, guitar and harmonica and diving into American roots music. But his real epiphany came when he first heard Indian music.

"It touched my heart like the sounds of home," he said. "Then I got all the Indian albums I could and jammed along with Ravi Shankar records on guitar."

His interest in Indian music was so great that, when he was 19, Uttal left Manhattan for California to study sarod and voice with master Ali Akbar Khan. He still takes lessons but admits, "I'm a pretty bad student these days, because of my touring schedule."

He made his first trip to India 18 months after moving to the West Coast. In Bhopur, India, he rented a house for $15 a month. "I saw the Bauls playing in a park," he said, "and got to know them. Soon my house became Baul Central."

The Bauls of Bengal are an ethnically diverse Indian community dedicated to spreading peace and brotherhood through their devotional songs. "We'd sing, and I took lessons from them," Uttal said. "Then, I traveled with them, performing on trains and in stations."

Uttal's experience with the Bauls inspired him to mix East and West in his own music, though he emphasized that "it was never a calculated decision." The mix was simply a part of his own emerging musical identity, as can be heard in the swinging, keening "Malkouns (Night on the Ganges)" (RealAudio excerpt).

Spirit Room showcases different aspects of the Pagan Love Orchestra, as well as such special moments as Uttal's collaboration with the late trumpet player and world-music pioneer Don Cherry on "Footprints" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Hara Shiva Shakkara" (RealAudio excerpt).

The latter track, Uttal said, "is an old Sanskrit prayer I set to music. I sang it in Israel a couple of years ago and some Jewish cabalists came up and asked, 'Do you know you're singing in Hebrew?' It turned out to be a Hebrew prayer about the creation of the universe. I was chilled that all the old traditions were on the same wavelength."

The Sanskrit and Hindi lyrics that Uttal sets to music all derive from ancient prayers. Chanting also plays a large part in his life, and Uttal returned recently from a weeklong chanting workshop he led in Fiji. Next up for Uttal is the August release of a live chanting disc, Live Kirtan and Pagan Remixes (Etherean), recorded in a yoga studio.

"I did a lot of postproduction on it, and three remixes with beats and stuff," he said, "I play harmonium and sing, along with a tabla player. It shows another side of me, something I've been doing for years. I just never thought many people would be interested in it."