At the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival last September, the energizing performance brought together string players from the Bay Area collective Classical Revolution with musicians from Brooklyn Raga Massive, Gupta's collective devoted to Indian classical music. Riley’s cellular cycle provided an ideal vehicle for the rhythmically charged encounter, a concept that Brooklyn Raga Massive captured on the album Terry Riley In C (Northern Spy Records) with a cast of New York musicians.
Back in the Bay Area for a series of concerts, Gupta is navigating a different kind of cycle. At the release show for his new album, A Circle Has No Beginning, at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Aug. 19, he’s presenting original music that that brings together another brilliant bridge-building ensemble that combines East and West Coast and Eastern and Western musical traditions.
“It’s like an orchestra with a wide spectrum of sounds and timbres with the strings and classical Indian elements,” says Gupta, who moves between tablas and a trap drum kit in the band. “I work with people who love to improvise, and that thread draws us together. We’re all in this moment together.”
Originally from Fremont, Gupta spent his formative years in the Bay Area scene before decamping for Brooklyn in 2008. At his upcoming album release show, a bevy of accomplished musicians will join him on stage. The diverse lineup includes jazz bassist Rashaan Carter—who’s performed around the Bay Area with trumpet great Wallace Roney—and conservatory-trained cellist and vocalist Marika Hughes, a supremely versatile artist who was a crucial part of the Bay Area’s creative string scene from 1994-2005 via her work with violinist Carla Kihlstedt’s experimental ensemble 2 Foot Yard, vocalist Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess and violinist Jeremy Cohen’s Quartet San Francisco.
Gupta didn’t connect with Hughes until they were both living in New York, but the album release concert draws on several overlapping circles from his California days. San Francisco Carnatic alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan, Sacramento guitarist Ross Hammond and tenor saxophonist David Boyce of the group Broun Fellinis (with whom Gupta played and recorded in the ecstatic free jazz ensemble The Supplicants) will also perform with the percussionist.
“David [Boyce] activates so many things musically,” Gupta says. “I so that spirit that reminds us that there’s a lot of stuff in between these notes, spaces and cracks to explore.”
Gupta became a force in Indian classical music in the United States through his work with Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM), a collective that began as a weekly gathering for musicians interested in studying the tradition. He was inspired to start BRM after witnessing Classical Revolution's rapid rise in San Francisco. Founded by violist Charith Premawardhana, the collective brings together top-tier string players to present classical music in cafes and other informal settings. (Premawardhana will join him on stage at the Aug. 19 release show for A Circle Has No Beginning.)
When Gupta moved east, he brought the Classic Revolution idea with him, and, working with sitarist Neel Murgai, based BRM on a similar concept. Since then, BRM has steadily expanded into a major arts organization, producing festivals, holding weekly sessions and events like the recent showcase at Queens Botanical Garden, Women’s Raga Massive.
“Watching artists connecting with fellow artists is so powerful at many different levels,” Gupta says. “When Charith started Classical Revolution, people were coming out of the woodwork to play. We saw the same thing happen with Brooklyn Raga Massive. People who love music are drawn to it, but I think many audiences still don’t realize they can go down the street and be part of something extraordinary.”
Marika Hughes started playing with Neel Murgai’s ensemble and has kept an eye on BRM as its grown from its initial initial sessions in Gupta's basement. “It’s amazing to watch what they’ve created," she says.
Fascinated by Gupta’s music, she told him early on that she wanted to be part of any recording he wanted to do. “I love the combination of these grand, beautiful, sweeping Bollywood melodies with a jazz rhythm section underpinning it all,” she says. “There’s the freedom to comp or solo. I love the challenge for me as a player. I come from the Western classical tradition, and it’s always good for me to have to stretch in new ways.”
While the Aug. 19 album release concert at Freight & Salvage for A Circle Has No Beginning is the centerpiece of Gupta’s Bay Area sojourn, he has several other engagements. On Aug. 23, he focuses on the drum kit when he rejoins forces at San Jose’s Café Stritch with bassist David Ewell and alto saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan in VidYa (the date was originally billed as The Supplicants). And on Aug. 24, he plays a solo tabla recital as part of vegan chef Philip Gelb’s dinner concert series in Oakland, a reunion that completes another musical circle.
“It’s a really interesting way to present the tabla,” Gupta says. “Philip’s concerts are such a gem of Oakland. I hope people don’t forget he’s also an amazing musician. Last year he joined us at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival for ‘In C’ on shakuhachi.”
Beyond his ambidextrous mastery of the drum kit and tabla, Gupta’s talents manifest in his ability to create musical situations that seamlessly encompass disparate worlds, like adding Gelb’s Japanese bamboo flute to the Indo-Riley extravaganza. A circle might have no beginning, but in Gupta’s hands, the infinite continuum is an open door that allows musicians to be themselves even as they explore unfamiliar territory.
While Marika Hughes has started studying classical Indian rhythms and phrasing, “I’ve been told I don’t have to be like an Indian musician,” she says. “Sameer is very clear we can come as we are, and be who we are. We can be whatever kind of hybrid of musician we’ve become.”