by Howard Lawes
A chance visit to the Wilde Theatre, Bracknell to hear a National Youth Jazz Orchestra sextet play an evening of Dizzy Gillespie was a reminder that Asha Parkinson is yet another of the prodigiously talented young musicians who continue to demonstrate that the London jazz scene is scaling ever greater heights. I caught up with Asha on the phone shortly after she had been in the studio with her band Kalpadruma, recording new material for her next album Possession.
Asha was fortunate to have inspirational parents, her mother is the music academic Dr. Ruth Herbert who used to play Stockhausen and jazz to her, while her father is the author and inspirational storyteller, Rob Parkinson, who has a particular interest in the culture and traditions of the Middle East. Not short of imagination herself Asha was writing music and improvising on the piano at only six years old. At the age of nine, she switched to the saxophone and soon rattled off all her music exams, passing with distinctions. During her teenage years, Asha joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and other junior jazz ensembles and was a semi-finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year on three occasions. She appeared twice at the London Jazz Festival, once with her band, Out of the Loop in 2014 and then with Kalpadruma at the Jazz New Blood showcase in 2019. Asha attended the Purcell School for exceptional young musicians where she completed her sixth-form studies, following in the footsteps of alumni that include Alexandra Ridout and Jacob Collier.
Before arriving at the Purcell School Asha had become deeply moved by the crisis in Syria and single-handedly conceived Voices Beyond Divisions, a unique music project aimed at bringing together children from different cultural backgrounds to sing for peace, and in the process promote the values of tolerance and respect at the heart of all religious teachings. Asha composed What War over the period 2014-2016, and also raised more than £10,000 by crowdfunding and a sold-out concert held at St James's Church in London in 2017. Her composition was performed by the Purcell Chamber Orchestra and Choir, with children from Iqra Islamic Primary School, Akiva Jewish Primary School and St Peter’s RC Primary School, Woolwich, plus the Kalia Lyraki (Ney) and Nikos Ziarkas (oud) and Asha on saxophone. As a result of this project, she was one of 20 young people to be presented with the International Diana Legacy Award at St James’ Palace in May 2017. .
Throughout the years that Asha has been playing jazz, she has noted that girls do experience problems of discrimination in the music industry although she believes the situation is slowly improving. She was fortunate to have been selected for an initiative called Creative Leadership Ensemble (CLE) under the direction of Issie Barratt. Founded in 2013 (in partnership with the Institute of Education) the intention of the CLE initiative is to support, mentor, champion and celebrate 12 advanced female musicians each year and also provide more female role models and mentors for young musicians. Asha enjoys taking a leading role, setting high standards in terms of performance, appearance and communication with the audience but, due to their sometimes competitive nature, she tends to avoid jam sessions. In conversation with Issie Barratt and Emma Rawicz on a #NationalYouthJazz Wednesday video Asha described the commitment and training regime required by aspiring musicians in terms of the long hours of practice.
Entering the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Asha's undergraduate studies were affected by the pandemic but as she says "Terrible as Lockdown has been, staying at home has given me the chance to re-acquaint myself with all my important influences including Coleman Hawkins, Stan Getz and Charles Mingus.” It also provided her with more opportunities for composition and in 2021 she was awarded a Jazz South commission to write Encounters, a powerful new suite for saxophone, string quartet, qanun, Arabic percussion and voice. Encounters inhabits an evocative sound world where jazz, Arabic Maqam and contemporary classical music meet with the feminist poetry of Maram Al-Masri.
During the pandemic the lack of live music was compensated for by a series of lockdown sessions live-streamed from Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. One of these sessions featured her band Kalpadruma, sponsored by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, and featured tunes from both the 2022 album Onwards and a slimmed-down version of Asha's Jazz South Commission, Encounters. Asha graduated from the conservatoire with 1st class honours.
In addition to being an exceptional musician and composer, Asha is also a lover of literature and languages, which together with an expansive imagination has served her well in a wide variety of musical projects. She founded her jazz band Kalpadruma in 2017 and spent four years seeking an authentic musical meeting point between different sonic and cultural backgrounds, the result of which was the album Onwards, released in 2022. The name 'Kalpadruma' means "a wish-fulfilling, divine tree of life in Indian-origin religions and mythologies- a source of pure inspiration". To date, the group has performed at a number of high-profile venues such as the London Jazz Festival, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club and the Union Chapel, and have collaborated with the likes of the South Asian Youth Orchestra and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians. Members of the band sign up to a manifesto that seeks to break down barriers between people, cultures and musical genres. While the basic band is a quintet (as seen on the lockdown session from Ronnie Scott's) there are well over 20 musicians credited with contributing to the recording of Onwards which must have been a considerable logistical exercise, both at the studio and then touring the album live. One of the highlights of the album is the contribution from Konstantinos Glynos playing the qanun, which is a dulcimer type instrument, played on the lap by plucking the strings. While it derives from the Middle East there are similar instruments found almost worldwide and Asha may well have heard it on one of the several holidays she took with her parents in Turkey. There is of course a long history of incorporating instruments from around the world into jazz. Dave Brubeck's Blue Rondo à la Turk was inspired by a Turkish tune, while Michael Garrick employed Indian scales and techniques in several of his compositions to mention just two.
Kalpadruma's second, upcoming album, Possession, was recorded in September 2023. The title track is inspired by the Czechoslovakian Folk Tale, Longshanks, Girth & Keen that Asha remembers her Dad telling her when she was a child. The tale tells of a young prince in love with a beautiful princess who is imprisoned by a wicked magician. The prince enlists the help of three friends, each with a different power, and together they overcome the magician's spells and the prince is able to marry his sweetheart; Asha describes it as being "about the dangers of having a saviour complex romantically and getting lost in someone else's demons". A second track, called Avvon d'bishmaiya is Asha's setting of the original Aramaic Lord's Prayer. She remarks that "I came across it a few years ago and found it so refreshing, without all those power connotations of the modern English version". While some may find the inspirations for Asha's music a little on the esoteric side, it must surely be to everyone's benefit, particularly creative artists, to think deeply of one's relationship with the world and to broaden horizons. In her previous album Onwards there are references to angels and demons El Duende me Protege (The Duende will protect me) and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Snowdrift on the Sand). The poet Edward Hirsch cites Miles Davis' modal approach in Kind Of Blue as a primary example of duende while Asha mentions that Sonny Rollins also has a feeling of fire, rebelliousness and duende.
As exemplified by her Voices Beyond Divisions project, Asha has for many years developed ideas by which people whose communities are in conflict might try to view the world in a less confrontational way. A more famous project with similar ideals is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra which was originated by the Palestinian author/scholar, Edward Said and the Israeli conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim. Sadly as witnessed by recent events in Israel and Gaza there is so much more to do. Asha would like to continue her education by researching improvised music in different cultures and better understanding the role of music and spirituality in people's lives and she would dearly love to improve the lot of women in certain patriarchal societies. She is currently busy composing and recording material for her next album, expanding her Encounters Suite (setting the poetry of Dana Dajani), which she enjoys immensely but is less fond of the business side of being a professional musician. However, having received support from Help Musicians towards creating Possession and getting her music out into the world, she is optimistic that people will listen. While waiting for what promises to be another polished and thought-provoking album one could do worse than check out Asha's recent solo on #198 of Sam Eastmond's John Zorn's Bagatelles Vol. 16 which reviewer Tony Benjamin called "Inspired".
Asha Parkinson's sources of inspiration are many and varied, and her hope is that those who hear her music will also be inspired, perhaps to have their wishes fulfilled and enjoy life a little more.
Asha's website can be found here.