Tarun Balani: The Transcendent Jazz You Need to Hear

by Lily Lyons

Photo by Mohit Kapil

Since he graduated from Berklee in 2010, Tarun Balani has been making nuanced, emotionally honest music and establishing himself as a consummate artist to watch.  His latest single “Dharma” has skyrocketed up the editors’ jazz playlist on Apple Music and captured the attention of the jazz blogosphere. Deeply committed to empowering his community, Tarun has also co-founded the Global Music Institute as a way to nurture up-and-coming musicians in New Dehli. We caught up with him to talk about his album in the works and life after Berklee.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

How does “Dharma” reflect your musical and personal growth since your last releases?

Last year was very eventful for me. I got married in February and my wife and I moved into our own place. I also got a new piano, so I was writing a lot. But during our wedding celebrations, I lost my grandmother. In India, marriage and death are very polar ideas, with opposite social implications. My wife and I are more spiritual than religious, but our families are very religious and it was a difficult time for all of us. I was very close to my grandmother. The emotional conflict and turmoil had a huge impact on the music I was writing.

What has changed for you musically?

 I’ve spent more time working on my composition skills. In my earlier records, especially “Sacred Worlds,” I obviously spent time working out the compositions, but I did so in a more intuitive manner. I was a very young composer; I’m still a very young composer. It’s going to take me a lifetime to master this…but with this upcoming album I really crafted the blueprint of every song and I was extremely particular. Two years ago I also picked up the trumpet. So I actually played the trumpet to compose the trumpet melodies on the album. Overall, it was this huge learning curve for me in terms of composition. And of course I kept working on my skills as a drummer.

Tell us the story behind “Dharma’s” cover art.

The reason the single artwork has three overexposed faces overlapping each other is to highlight multiple headspaces, ideologies, and emotions at once. It represents a fluid headspace that is not very defined. People can interpret it the way they want to. As an artist, if you put your face out there then people can have preconceived notions about you… but when your cover art is a skewed image or an optical illusion, the structure is there but it’s also not there.

Does collaborating with your bandmates (the Tarun Balani Collective) play a big role in your process?

In improvised music it is so important to have an open mind and let your bandmates add their own personality and color to the music. Writing down your ideas is only 60 or 50 percent of the process: the rest is totally up to the band. I don’t even think about what I’m going to play until I get to the first rehearsal. The guys that I play with know how to interpret my music. They are so honest with me, and we are really good friends…I am very flexible and open to their feedback because improvised music cannot be made with one mind. You have to be conscious of how other people are thinking and interpreting the music.

Did you meet your band through Berklee?

Some of them are from my time at Berklee but I found many of them through the Berklee network. That’s one of the best parts about Berklee. Obviously the education is amazing, but the friends and the connections you make stay with you for a lifetime. You can just pick any country to go play a gig in because your classmate or friend lives there. 

Any advice for current Berklee students?

I think there are some very common fears, illusions, and expectations at Berklee. If you are a jazz player you feel you have to move to New York, or if you’re a composer you must go to LA, and so forth. I would like to challenge those conventions. You can make your path and drive your own career goals with the right tools and support. Obviously Berklee gave me those tools. But at a school as big as Berklee, you have to stay focused and know what you want so you don’t get carried away. Berklee has so many things going on. You have this workshop, that concert, this major, that recital…it can be quite overwhelming. I think having a very strong artistic focus and knowing your goals is very important. Be centered so you don’t get lost in the ocean of musicians and artists.

Curious about hearing Tarun’s music? You can listen to “Dharma” through the links below:

Apple Music: itun.es/in/vsjXd