Renaissance man Kabir Sehgal talks jazz and Grammys

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Renaissance man Kabir Sehgal talks jazz and Grammys

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Producer Kabir Sehgal (left) and composer Ted Nash, winners of Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for ‘Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom’ (Ted Nash Big Band), pose in the press room during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on Feb. 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

To look at Kabir Sehgal’s accomplishments is to make one feel quite lazy.

He’s an author (“Jazzocracy” and “Coined: The Rich Life of Money and How Its History Has Shaped Us,” among his efforts); a former vice president in emerging market equities at J.P. Morgan; a former speechwriter for John Kerry; the founder of the nonprofit organization Music for Tomorrow; and a U.S. Navy reservist.

He’s also an expert jazz bassist who toured with Wynton Marsalis and won his second career Grammy Award last month (best large ensemble jazz album) as executive producer and liner notes author for the Ted Nash Big Band’s “Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom,” a collection of notable names including Andrew Young, Glenn Close and Sam Waterston reading historical speeches set to an orchestral suite.

He also earned a Latin Jazz Grammy for producing and writing the liner notes for Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s “The Offense of the Drum” in 2015 (best International album).

Oh, and he’s currently writing an opera.

And he’s 32.

“I relax by working,” the affable Sehgal said from New York, where he splits his time with his native Atlanta. “Instead of watching TV, I’d rather write an article or write a book or some music. It’s how I’ve always been.”

Sehgal, whose family lives in Sandy Springs, recently chatted about his achievements.

Q: At what point did you become interested in music?

A: While I was in Lovett (School), I was in the jazz band. It was an amazing experience because I participated in a program (the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival) by Jazz at Lincoln Center. They take 15 bands to go to New York and they perform and the top three play the finals, and we went a couple of years while I was in high school. It was then that I realized there were other people who liked jazz at a high level and thought Miles Davis was cool. It was really an eye opener. I meet Ted Nash and Wynton Marsalis and they became mentors. I didn’t think I would become a professional musician, but in terms of music being a force, that awakened that.

Q: And that continued at college?

A: At Dartmouth, I was in the University jazz band. Wynton invited me to tour with him (in 2004-2005). It was based on my conversations with him and Ted that I wrote my first book on jazz and democracy.

Q: Tell me about your involvement with the Ted Nash Big Band that led to this Grammy.

A: In 2013, Ted and Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played (Atlanta) Symphony Hall and they were doing the Chick Corea song “Windows” and I reached out to Ted and said, “You’re an amazing arranger; let’s do something together,” and he said he was working on an idea of taking speeches and turning it into music. It was right up my alley, since I had been a speechwriter to John Kerry (during his presidential campaign). I said, “Let’s do it,” and that became a four-year odyssey of working on the “Presidential Suite.”

Q: How did you determine the participants and material?

A: We recorded the music and then thought, why don’t we get different readers to do each speech? Deepak (Chopra) had met (Jawaharlal) Nehru and we thought it would be incredible if he could do the speech (“Spoken at Midnight”). I’ve known Deepak because he had me on a radio show to interview me for another book. My godfather is (former mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations) Andrew Young. He knew (Nelson) Mandela well, so it made sense for Uncle Andy to read that speech (“The Time for the Healing of the Wounds”). Doug Brinkley and I wrote the liner notes together and he did the Reagan speech, “Tear Down This Wall.” We tried to be thoughtful of who read the speeches.

Q: You now have two Grammys and one Latin Grammy. With all of your accomplishments, where do they rank?

A: Extremely high, it’s a huge honor. I’m really humbled by it because it’s recognition by our peers in the music industry; you just try to put out music at the highest level possible and the reward is the music and the icing on the cake is the Grammy. Last year and this year, it was really a blessing to also be part of the instrumental category (Nash won best instrumental composition for “Spoken at Midnight” and Sehgal’s friend Arturo O’Farrill won last year for “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite”). That category is about doing things across so many fields, not just jazz, so I’m really proud.

For more of the Q&A with Kabir Sehgal, visit The Music Scene blog at MyAJC.com.

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