Alaya Project, an Indo-jazz-funk band like you’ve never heard, readies Bay Area shows – The Mercury News

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Friends and musical collaborators since middle school, Rohan Krishnamurthy and Prasant Radhakrishnan had talked for years about creating a band that could bring together their love of jazz and their deep training in South Indian classical music. When they launched the Alaya Project in 2017 it was the Beatles who finally brought the stars into alignment.
An East Bay musician who combines the drum kit and Carnatic hand percussion, Krishnamurthy realized a golden opportunity had dropped into his lap with an invitation to join an UnderCover Presents production celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at Berkeley’s UC Theatre.
With each act interpreting one track from the classic album, he figured the obvious choice would be George Harrison’s sitar-driven “Within You Without You.” Instead, UnderCover Presents producer Lyz Luke tapped him to reimagine “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” a challenge he knew would intrigue Radhakrishnan, an alto saxophonist who’d spent years melding jazz improvisation and classical Carnatic forms.
“I immediately hit up Prasant,” said Krishnamurthy, 35, from his home in Dublin. “Let’s give this a shot. I was really hearing accordion for the tune, too, and that’s when I hit up Colin Hogan, a Bay Area heavyweight. I’d known him through the scene, but the first time we came together was for ‘Mr. Kite.’ I like to tell people that at heart the Alaya Project is actually a Beatles cover band.”
The trio included the enthralling arrangement of “Mr. Kite” on their eponymous debut album released last month on Bandcamp, but most Alaya Project pieces are originals exploring musical territory they’ve designed to intermingle Carnatic ragas with African American musical idioms. Celebrating the release of “The Alaya Project” Sept. 23 as part of the Hammer Theater’s Sunset Series, the group will be joined by special guest Roopa Mahadevan, a New York-based classical Indian vocalist known for her work in jazz, R&B, soul and world music settings.

Next month the trio also performs a series of daytime concerts celebrating Diwali, the colorful South Asian festival of lights, presented by San Mateo County Libraries, with shows in Foster City (Oct. 21), Belmont (Oct. 23), San Carlos (Oct. 24) and Millbrae (Oct. 25).
Krishnamurthy kicks off the fall concert season with a duo recital 5 p.m. Sept. 18 at Chabot College with Vishnu Ramaprasad on navtar, a redesigned guitar that can navigate microtonal intervals.
The pair first joined forces last month in San Francisco for a performance at Old First Concerts, “but I’ve known his parents for a long time,” Krishnamurthy said. “Vishnu’s father is a well-known Carnatic singer in India, and his mom is a well-known dancer. We just connected recently and he plays this really interesting souped-up guitar with sympathetic strings.”
Part of what makes the Alaya Project such rich creative exchange is that it expands on a conversation that Krishnamurthy and Radhakrishnan started as children of Indian immigrants. Krishnamurthy grew up mostly in southwest Michigan while Radhakrishnan hails from Phoenix. They first met in 1997 while attending the Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, the largest Carnatic music festival outside of India.
“It’s a hub for South Indians from all over North America, with youth competitions and performances by the great artists of today,”  said Radhakrishnan, 40. “Rohan and I jammed a couple of times. He joined me on several performances and we got called by an eminent Bharatanatyam dance performer and opened for her, our first special concert together.”
They stayed in touch and performed together often while their commitment to Carnatic music deepened. Krishnamurthy became a disciple of Chennai maestro Guruvayur Dorai, the foremost master of the double-headed mridangam drum, and later studied the drum kit with jazz expert Alan Hall at the California Jazz Conservatory. Similarly, Radhakrishnan traveled regularly to India as a disciple of Carnatic saxophone pioneer “Padmashri” Kadri Gopalnath.
Radhakrishnan moved out to the Bay Area in 2005 and founded VidyA, an innovative Carnatic jazz ensemble built on the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist David Ewell and drummer Sameer Gupta (who went on to found the influential Brooklyn Raga Massive collective in New York). After earning an ethnomusicology PhD from the Eastman School of Music, Krishnamurthy also made the journey west in 2013, and the time seemed ripe to pursue a deeper collaboration.

The UnderCover Presents gig provided the ideal vehicle, but it was Colin Hogan’s work on piano and accordion that gave the Alaya Project its protean force. Hailing from a family of musical explorers, his parents were founding members of the renowned East Bay gamelan ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya. His two siblings are also esteemed musicians and they perform regularly as the Hogan Brothers, holding down a monthly last-Friday residency at Jupiter in Berkeley.
Hogan doesn’t have deep Carnatic training, “but he’s got a wonderful ear,” Krishnamurthy said. “When we focus on a raga it’s front and center, and he’s bringing in natural harmonies the way a pianist would harmonize a tune. He’ll play what sounds good with that raga, or he’ll bring in a jazz or a flamenco tune, which just brings in a whole different thing.”
Contact Andrew Gilbert at
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 23
Where: Hammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose
Tickets: $15-$45,, (408) 924-8501.
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