Varun Das is a first year master’s student at MSM studying with John Riley who’s been recognized by Downbeat magazine as “Best/ Outstanding Soloist” in the years 2019, 2020, and 2021 in the college category of the annual student music award. He chats with us about his recent performance with Red Baraat at the Blue Note Jazz Club, his time at MSM, and what he’s listening to right now.
Varun will complete his master’s at MSM in 2024, and he’s already achieved many accolades: He was a finalist in Jazz Percussion for National YoungArts, played in the 2018 Grammy Jazz band, and was selected for All State and All Eastern (East Coast) Concert Bands as a principal chair and performed with the Carnegie Hall Honors Performance Series Orchestra. He’s also toured nationally with Bollywood Artists such as Kavitha Krishnamurthy Jeffrey Iqbal.
In addition, Varun was named winner in both NAFME All Eastern and NJMEA All State Composition Competitions for his original piece, State of Mind, has received the Dadasaheb Phalke award for Best Music in Short Film Finding Home by Rohini Sonak.
Why did you choose to study at MSM?
I choose to study at MSM because one of my drum hero teaches here, John Riley. I’ve admired him for years and studied his books prior to coming to MSM. Studying with him is a dream come true, as well as getting to work with the other world-renowned faculty that are in the school. Another reason I chose to continue studying at MSM for my master’s after getting my Bachelor of Arts, is the amount of successful people in the industry and on the scene who have come from the school. There’s a lot of history and a lot of heavy weight associated with attending Manhattan School of Music.
What do you like best about studying at MSM?
There are many great things about studying at MSM, but one of my favorite things is the sheer amount of talent here. In almost any situation, you’ll find someone who’s an incredible and unique musician. The opportunities to play with great musicians here are endless. Another of my favorite aspects of MSM is the diversity in the ensembles and the types of music we get to play with in jazz. We’re not only just playing straight-ahead jazz or swing, we’re playing Afro Cuban, hip hop inspired music, and Brazilian music, just to name a few genres. It’s really wonderful that we get to do that.
“In almost any situation here at MSM, you will find somebody who’s an incredible and unique musician. The opportunities to play with great musicians here are endless.”
Tell us about playing at the renowned Blue Note jazz club and with Red Baraat?
Playing at the Blue Note with Red Baraat was nothing short of incredible. The first time I went there as an audience member, I got to see one of my all time favorite heros, Chick Corea, play with his group, I’ve also seen icons in the jazz scene like Dave Weckl, Roy Haynes, and Robert Glasper play at the Blue Note, so to be on the stage where they once played is an incredible and surreal feeling.
Red Baraat’s music is a merge of North Indian bhangra with elements of wedding celebration music, hip-hop, Jazz, and rock, punk. They’re a really cool band who are known for bringing up the party – people just go bananas at their concerts. One of the cool things about playing the Blue Note is we got to play pieces we wouldn’t usually play and we had equally if not more fun performing those.
My favorite piece of the night was called Samaro Mantra.The band leader took inspiration from Nefertiti by Miles Davis, so the melody kept being played over and over and the drums are soloing over top of everything, just completely building it up. It lasted about 10 to 15 minutes and my hands were dead after that but it was really awesome to play.
What is your favorite thing about studying jazz in New York City
The endless learning opportunities! New York City is the jazz capital of the world. You can go to some of the best jazz clubs and watch your heroes play. I have learned so much from just watching and even talking to them after the show. It’s really inspiring. Jazz is so accessible here, it’s really unparalleled to anywhere else in the world.
What are you excited about this year?
I’m really excited about the jazz combo I’m in, lead by Miguel Zenón! I’m also doing a bunch of recordings with other students in the program. A lot of the music we’re recording is written by us so that’s exciting. We’ll be sending some of these recordings out to festivals and competitions which will give us more playing opportunities outside of school which I think is absolutely phenomenal. Another thing I’m enjoying right now this project I’m working on in my Pedagogy class where I have to design a full jazz program. I’m acting as the dean and have to design everything from the courses and curriculum to the ensembles.
In December, I’m going to India to record with a bunch of famous artists in the Indian Classical world like Rakesh Chaurasia on flute and Purbayan Chatterjee on sitar, and Dr. L Subramaniam on violin. I hope to do an album where I fuse the music from that with the jazz I play and compose. In March I’ll be touring with Red Baarat around North America. The tour will be celebrating the Festival of Colors! It’s going to be a blast.
What are you listening to right now and you have any song recommendations for the people?
Right now I’m listening to Miguel Zenón’s Música de las Americas which was just nominated for a Grammy Award in Best Latin Jazz Album. I’m also listening Sonny Singh album Chardi Kala, Porter Robinson’s album Nurture, The Brothers Johnson Greatest Hits album and Contours by Sam Rivers. Funny, I also recently listened to the movie soundtrack of Grease which was enjoyable.
DOG n DRUMS ft. Varun Das, drums and Champ Das, barking and vocals