By Shevlin Sebastian
The Mumbai-based jazz pianist Xavier Fernandes was enjoying the view from a private guest house in Kochi. “The city is beautiful and has a lot of greenery,” he says. Just then Xavier got a call on his mobile. It was from one of his students wishing him on Guru Purnima day. “It is a day when teachers get blessings from their students,” he says.
Today, Xavier is regarded as one of India 's jazz’s icons. He has been playing non-stop for the past six decades.
Xavier, who plays keyboard and vocals, had come with his band, 'Chicken Feathers', to play, at the JT Pac, in Kochi, for the first time. The other members included Benny Soans on drums, Shyam Raj on saxophone and Loy Henriques on bass.
Aware that the Kochi audience is not very well-versed in jazz, Xavier decided to add some old-time pop favourites, like ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong and ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. “It was a polite audience,” says Xavier, who had once played with jazz great Duke Ellington and his band when they came to Delhi. But the members of the audience did like the show. Says teacher Tina Kurien: “They played the purest form of jazz. The music was peaceful and uncomplicated.”
Unfortunately, modern jazz has become complicated. “Nowadays, even the musicians cannot understand the innovations that are taking place in jazz,” says Xavier. “Brilliant players like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock are incredibly fast, and rhythmic, but remain too technical. When these guys play, you don't know where the beginning, the middle or the end is. The general public does not understand a thing. If you cannot remember two bars of a song ten minutes after you heard it, then it does not work.”
So, what makes Xavier continue to play jazz? “In jazz you have the freedom to improvise,” he says. “For example, you can take a melody and make ten other melodies out of it. On the other hand, when you play classical music, like Beethoven or Bach, you have to follow what they have written. In other words, you have to do an interpretation.”
It is this desire for freedom that has also made Xavier avoid the lucrative field of playing music for Bollywood songs. He has spent his life doing concerts, playing at functions and at hotels.
And there have been some poignant moments, too. Once, while playing at the Le Meridien in Mumbai, a young man came up and asked to play a particular song, which happened to be his dad's favourite. “He was kneeling down next to my piano and watched me play,” says Xavier. “After a while tears came to his eyes, because his father had passed away recently.”
Then there were two women from Australia who were listening to the music from the coffee shop, and, thus, could not see Xavier. When they were leaving, one of them came up to Xavier, and said, “We thought you were a 25-year-old, when we were listening to your playing and singing.” A smiling Xavier says, “That made me feel good. I was 70 at that time. Now I am a musical dinosaur at 81 years of age, but I feel young at heart. I play with guys who are 17 or 18.”
Not surprisingly, music runs in the family. His father, Sebastian Fernandes, played violin with the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and then went into Hindi films. “My dad used to work with filmmakers like Sorab Modi and music directors C. Ramachandra and Laxmikant Pyarelal.”
Xavier trained for seven years under a classical pianist by the name of Joseph D'Lima. “The interesting part is that I have not done a single exam,” says Xavier. “I am a musical illiterate.”
When Xavier was studying at St. Xavier's College, he joined a band called 'Chic Chocolate and His Music Makers'. He played in several places with the band. However, in order to make ends meet, he began to give piano tutorials in 1965 and is still doing it to this day.
As a result, many in the music industry in Mumbai got their initial lessons from Xavier. His two Australia-based sons are also musicians: Brubeck is a keyboard player, while Shadwell, is a guitarist. “I remember my dad would tell my wife, Carmen, that when the boys are practising, she should never call them for lunch or dinner,” says Xavier. “They will know when to come. When I am sitting at the piano, hunger or time does not matter. That is the kind of passion our family has for music.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)