A group of ageing musicians from Lahore has pulled off the unlikely feat of racing up jazz charts in the US, thanks to an album of standards and bossa nova classics blended with Hindustani music recorded by a Pakistani philanthropist.

“Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova” features musicians trained in classical Hindustani music who once worked for Lahore’s bustling film industry, popularly known as Lollywood. As the number of Pakistani films dwindled, many musicians hung up their instruments and took up other professions like running tea stalls.

Businessman Izzat Majeed and Mushtaq Soofi, the director of Majeed’s Sachal Studio, took on the task of tracking down these musicians and putting together an orchestra that could work on projects at their state-of-the-art studio built with advice from engineers at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, the home of the Beatles.

The Sachal Studio Orchestra

The album of jazz and bossa nova standards, which features unique reinterpretations of classics like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” and Errol Garner’s “Misty”, was released in May with little fanfare.

Following good word of mouth and a report by the BBC, the ensemble’s version of “Take Five” topped the iTunes jazz singles chart during the week that ended July 24 while the album was at No 1 on the iTunes jazz album charts for the US and Britain the following week.

Majeed, an Oxford-educated businessman whose father was a film producer who worked with the likes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and music director Jaidev, and Soofi, a poet and writer, are basking in the glow of the Sachal Studio Orchestra’s unexpected success.

“This was not a commercial venture. If we had kept market constraints in mind, we would never have been able to experiment. The idea was to record good music that one can listen to,” Soofi said on phone from Lahore.

Majeed said it was a “great feeling” to have topped the iTunes jazz charts and to have given the musicians a fresh lease on life. “You have to remember these are people who worked with great ustads and belong to famous gharanas. They were respected and given patronage but almost overnight, things changed for them during the era of (late military dictator) Zia-ul-Haq,” he said.

Popular arts, including film and theatre, went into decline during the regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who put in place strict laws based on Islamic precepts. During Haq’s culturally repressive regime, art forms like popular music almost disappeared from radio and television.

Sachal Studio Orchestra’s jazz album has received praise from unexpected quarters. Majeed sent a copy of the album to jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year. On hearing Sachal’s version of his classic 1959 track “Take Five”, Brubeck remarked: “This is the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard.”

Majeed said his intention while recording Sachal’s version of “Take Five” was to replace Brubeck’s signature piano riff with the sound of the Hindustani orchestra. Despite having no formal training in music, Majeed did the arrangement for all the eight tracks on the jazz album.

Eight years after setting up Sachal Studio, Majeed has pulled off some impressive projects, including the album “Lahore Ke Rang Hari Ke Sang” featuring Indian signer Hariharan. Soofi said: “Hariharan came to Lahore in 2005 to record the project, which went off very well.”

Plans for the future include an album of jazz reinterpretations of ragas. “We want to make our classical heritage accessible to the world. The orchestra will play the ragas and raginis in a jazz structure,” said Soofi.

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