The day before her Carnegie Hall debut last December, Charu Suri ’97 faced a major snag.
One of the vocalists to perform with her jazz trio had the flu and laryngitis. Replacing her would be difficult because she was a Sufi singer, which are hard to come by. Such vocalists set a piece of poetry called a ghazal to music and improvise the tune. “I have never been more stressed and nervous in all my life,” says Suri.
The next morning, Suri frantically reached out to everyone she knew. A friend gave her the number of a Pakistani-born Sufi singer. At 10 a.m. Suri called him: “You don’t know me from Adam,” she began, explaining her predicament.
“I rushed into New York City, rented a studio,” says Suri, so the new vocalist could rehearse. Later that evening, their performance was a hit. They got a standing ovation.
Born and raised in South India, Suri became the first female Indian-American jazz composer to premier work at Carnegie Hall. The December program featured songs from her two new albums: The New American Songbook, with a classical jazz sound in the style of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter; and The Book of Ragas, which combines jazz and Indian musical traditions with a Sufi singer. By showcasing two different styles, “I just wanted to show the versatility of jazz,” she says, because “so many listeners tend to pigeonhole jazz into one kind of sound.” Suri’s trio features Suri on piano, along with a double bassist and drummer.
The combination of a jazz trio with a Sufi singer, as far as Suri knows, has never been done before. For The Book of Ragas, the vocalist sings ancient poetry using ragas — musical scales from the Indian classical tradition — which, Suri explains, “evoke a certain time of day.” The album won two Global Music Awards.
Suri, who majored in Classics and earned a certificate in musical performance at Princeton, didn’t always jam with jazz musicians. Classical music initially grabbed her attention. “I was drawn more to Mozart than I was to my local Indian music. And it would be years later that I would try to come back to my roots,” says Suri, who started playing piano at age 5.
After years of performing classical music as a pianist, a trip to New Orleans turned her on to jazz. Suri, also a freelance journalist, was there to report a story and went to concerts by a legendary jazz band. “I fell in love with the whole style,” she says.
On the nightstand in her hotel room, instead of note paper she found music manuscript paper. “So I just starting jotting down the tunes” rumbling in her head, she says. That was the beginning of her jazz composing. She was “hungering to create something really breaking the mold,” she says.
She formed her own band two years ago. The Charu Suri Trio had been performing at hotels, clubs, and other venues before COVID-19 hit, and is scheduled to return to Carnegie Hall in the future. In the meantime, the trio and vocalists are planning to perform virtual concerts.
Lately she has been recording piano performances in her New Jersey living room and sharing them on social media. “People have been loving it,” she says. “If I don’t post one day, people will be like ‘Where is your piece?’”