A Q&A with Utsav Lal

Reverie Road, which plays at the Burren Backroom on August 27: (L-R) Katie Grennan, John Williams, Winifred Horan and Utsav Lal.

The quartet Reverie Road seems a curious, even improbable combination: three pillars of Irish traditional music — Winifred Horan, John Williams, and Katie Grennan — and Indian-born Utsav Lal, dubbed the “raga pianist” and known for his unique blending of Western and Indian classical music, also incorporating jazz and other contemporary, improvisation-driven forms. But there they are. And they’ll be appearing at the Burren Backroom on Aug. 27 at 4 p.m. (tickets, etc., available through burren.com/music.html). 

Lal has Boston connections, having studied at New England Conservatory and collaborated with local Celtic musicians during his time here – and, as it turned out, this led to the formation of Reverie Road.

He recently shared some thoughts with Boston Irish contributor Sean Smith about his diverse musical interests, and how these came to incorporate the Irish tradition.


Q. Where and how did you encounter Irish/Celtic music, and what prompted you to try incorporating it into your playing?

Lal. When I was 12, my family relocated to Ireland. I was mostly working on Indian music, classical piano, and jazz in those days, but was curious about the traditional music of Ireland. My first forays into Irish music were through the Leitrim flautist Dave Sheridan. I was also gifted a CD of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill’s record “The Lonesome Touch,” which was then – and still remains – a huge influence. 

The more I dived in, the more I started to really develop a deep love for the tradition and started to sit in on sessions. I first incorporated it into my playing with a series of concerts called “Ragas to Reels,” exploring links between Irish and Indian music along with my friend Sam Comerford. We had a chance to perform at the National Concert Hall Dublin and went on tour in the UK, Northern Ireland, and India. Sam is a truly unique musician: His new project translating the music of Tommy Potts onto the saxophone is very special as well as his work with Neil Ó Lochlainn’s “Cuar.”

Subsequently, in 2010, I moved to Scotland for a jazz undergraduate degree at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and really got into the folk scene there which had a super interesting mix of Scottish and Irish musicians. There was a huge amount of crossover between those traditions, and I got close to musicians like Adam Sutherland, Hamish Napier, and Jarlath Henderson by playing in sessions around Glasgow. 

I later got to play with Martin and Dennis and further explore these links with them during a tour in India (2014), at the Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry (2016) and several times at the Irish Arts Center in New York City thereafter. “Ragas to Reels” has continued as a project since then, with a residency at the Irish Arts Center in fall 2022 that included Sam, Winifred Horan, Dana Lyn, Ganavya, and Nitin Mitta as well as a show at Wolftrap with Dana, Kyle Sanna, and Nitin Mitta a few months back. Each concert has been very different, exploring various aspects of each tradition.

   Q. You describe yourself as a "raga pianist." Most Americans sort of know what a raga is, or at least that it's part of Indian music, but can you give us a fuller explanation?  

Lal. Indian classical music is based on ragas. The concept of a raga is slightly complicated: It is a fixed set of notes with some attached improvisational characteristics, where the goal is to create a particular melodic environment. The notes usually ascend and descend in a way particular to each raga (there are thousands of them), and also have things like time of day, season, more favorable resting places, and certain emotional qualities associated with it. There’s a great deal of structure laid down in terms of how to develop the raga, but it is essentially improvised within this structure. The idea is mostly to find freedom within the rules. For example, in some ragas when ascending, you skip certain notes, or must play a certain melodic phrase before proceeding higher. These rules have usually been around for a long time, but also very slowly morph with each passing generation of musicians. So, the music is slowly and patiently evolving like a real living tradition. 

     Q. What connections do you see between Celtic and Indian musical forms?

Lal. There are a lot of great meeting points as well as a lot of crucial differences, and through “Ragas to Reels” I love exploring both aspects. For instance, the similarities and yet the friction between raga ornamentation and sean nos ornamentation; the contrasting approaches to the way the traditions deal with rhythm and space, yet the shared cyclic nature of tension and release which underscores the foundation of the music; the incredible tonal variety of both music treating pitches as much more than just notes but ranges of spaces inherently tied to instigating emotion in the listener.

Possibly the most important parallel for me is the blurred lines between composition and improvisation in these traditions. The “living” qualities of existing compositions passed down through oral tradition are constantly morphing, assimilating new ideas in line with new generations of individual styles. They are both forms of music where you have permission to insert yourself, your memory, your vision, and your experiences into vast and rich history of repertoire as long as you set out to do so with the utmost respect and reverence for the history behind you. 

I view them both as living traditions with innovation and malleability at the core of their heart, which is what ensures they will never be “ancient artifacts” and possess the dynamism to interact in a very interesting and meaningful way. 

Q. Are there pianists in the Irish/Celtic vein you've listened to or been influenced by?

Lal. I checked out a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and was invited by him to do a workshop at the University of Limerick in 2008. I also loved Sean O’Riada’s harpsichord music. I think the work of his son Peadar has been a huge influence for me. I love his piano playing as well as his compositions, especially the glorious “Triúr” records, which featured Indian tanpura with some of the slow airs. Also, Thomas Bartlett’s work with The Gloaming opened up new avenues of engagement with this music, too. I also had a chance to study with Hamish Napier in Scotland for a couple of years and love the exciting work he has done for the tradition. 

      Q. How did you decide to come to NEC? Were there some specific things you were looking to add to your music you felt you could find there?


Lal. I was always very curious about the Contemporary Improvisation department at NEC. After a great, although very compartmentalized, jazz education at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, I took some time to really examine what my own voice was. At that point, I was performing Indian classical music, traditional Irish, jazz, free improvisation and writing a lot of weird in-between stuff. The CI program felt the perfect place to unpack this and really concentrate on honing these things into a unified creative vision. 

In 2015, I met two graduates of NEC living in India with whom I had some long conversations — Derek Beckvold and Bob Jordon, who run the wonderful Teach to Learn organization in Massachusetts — which further strengthened my resolve to come to NEC. My experience there was fantastic and the opportunity to work on these things as well get to really dive into models of other musicians who create between the lines was really special. I worked very closely with Ran Blake, Ted Reichman, Anthony Coleman, Joe Morris, and Peter Row during my time there. NEC was also where I met Winifred Horan — I was in her Irish Ensemble class — and started the long and wonderful relationship of playing with her which has now culminated in Reverie Road.

      Q. What was being in Boston like for you?

Lal. Boston is beautiful and there’s a lot of great musicians around everywhere. I learnt a ton and formed some wonderful relationships and really loved the experience of exploring the city and neighboring areas. It was great being around so many excellent musicians, most of whom were in a very exploratory phase of their career. But I did feel like there were not a ton of venues to support the music life (apart from the Burren and the Lilypad and a few other places ,which we were all very grateful for) like there used to be. It would be amazing to see more and more venues open across the city. 

Chris Olverhoser and I played a lot in NEC and we recorded a duo record just before the pandemic that we will probably put out at some point. We found a kinship in how we wanted to explore traditional music which could be loosely described as “less chords, more variations and much longer on each tune.” Winifred was one of the most special friendships I made in Boston and after spending five years playing in her project (and meeting John and Katie on the road), Reverie Road was formed, which I’m really delighted to be a part of. The experience and musicianship of all the members lead to a really great space for exploration within the traditional music scene. I'm very excited to see where the band goes in the future.