F or me, the incredible three days of the Indian Jazz Yatra recently held in Mumbai was another reminder of the power and magic of improvisation in music. Classical Music in India has always had a magical element and years have been spent by its exponents in perfecting this mystical art. The joy of freedom and the exhilaration that one experiences when you are in the midst of improvisation is beyond description and we have always strived to achieve that level of excellence. As kids, Indian Classical Music was unquestionably a bitter pill for us to swallow. We were exposed to Rock and Blues music of those days and fortunately we were soon to discover that improvisation played a vital role in the development of the very music that we loved so much. It was not long before we, as musicians, were practicing this art in concerts all over the country with a reasonable amount of dexterity.
Improvisational Rock music as a genre developed strongly during the sixties with the powerful influence of Blues in popular Rock music. The musicians had perfected long jams of spontaneous music making and Rock musicians had started exploring Jazz. One of the foremost followers of this kind of music was the English band that went under the innocuous name "Traffic". Formed by Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Jim Capaldi and James Mason in 1967, this group of musicians was to become one of the most influential in an era which boasted of super talents of the like of John Lennon, Cat Stevens, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix etc.
Steve Winwood was definitely the driving force behind the genius of Traffic. Steve seemed to have it all - excellent guitar player, pianist/organist besides and gifted songwriter to boot! He had a distinctive high singing voice that would become the hallmark of any musical adventure he undertook and his abundant talents threatened to overpower any musical collaboration he was a part of. His fellow musicians had to be of equal stature and as a result, all Winwood projects were a musical treat.
The start of "Traffic" was as perfect as it can be! The four members decided to retire to a cottage in the quaint English countryside of Aston Tirrold in Berkshire for six months. They wanted to come up with new songs and a fresh sound that would shine through the brilliance that already existed in the England of those days. They were to find it in the unique talent that each of the four members brought to this super collaboration. Winwood was the "musical genius', who was a star before he was eighteen! His strong Rock and Jazz leanings resulted in him performing seven nights a week by the age of fifteen.
Chris Wood, an art student, was the multi instrumentalist in the band, who played flute, soprano, alto, tenor saxophone, oboe and an assortment of percussion instruments. He also played piano, organ and guitar beautifully, but it was his flute and sax work that placed him in the front ranks of rock musicians of those days. His musical tastes ranged from the classical to folk to primitive! Jim Capaldi was the brilliant percussionist who could somehow come up with the right drumming for the unique mix of Folk, Rock and Jazz that "Traffic" was brewing. He was a mean singer too and he would later cut a solo album on his very own. Dave Mason was the odd one out of the group as he was already a strong solo Folk artist before "Traffic". He had a distinct affinity for light melody and although he came up with many great songs for the "Traffic" including the Rock anthem 'Feelin' Alright' (a favorite with all Bombay bands of the seventies), his individualistic approach saw him have a 'blow hot, blow cold' relationship with the rest of the members. It was not long before he left the group only to return sporadically.
"Traffic" has left behind a rich repertoire of music and it would make any musician proud to be associated with albums like "Mr. Fantasy", "John Barleycorn Must Die"", "The Low Spark Of The High-Heeled Boys" etc. Songs like "Paper Sun", "40,000 headmen", " Dear Mr. Fantasy" were just some of their early, great songs and this dynamic British Band will always live on in the hearts of their fans all over the world.