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Tabla player Badal Roy, known for his cutting-edge jazz collaborations, dies at 82

Tabla player Badal Roy, who worked with both Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, in 2011.
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Tabla player Badal Roy, who worked with both Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, in 2011.

Badal Roy, a tabla player who worked with both Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman as they explored trailblazing electric sounds, died on January 18. He was 82. His death was confirmed to NPR by his niece, Piali Roy.

In 1968 Roy moved from East Pakistan to New York City, initially to attend a PhD program in statistics. But life had other plans — while playing tabla at an Indian restaurant in Manhattan, he was spotted by guitarist John McLaughlin. McLaughlin's celebrated 1971 album My Goal's Beyond marked Roy's first time on record.

Later McLaughlin came back to Roy on behalf of another musician, Miles Davis. Roy and the sitarist Khalil Balakrishna dropped by the Village Gate where Davis was performing, and they wound up playing music between Davis' sets. That quasi-audition set everything in motion — in the summer of '72, Roy and Balakrishna hit the studio with Davis to record the ecstatic On the Corner. Roy's tablas are the first sounds heard on the album's track "Black Satin."

"I asked him what to play and he said, 'Just start a groove,'" Roy told DRUM! Magazine. "When Herbie [Hancock], Jack [DeJohnette], and Carlos [Garnett] came in, I thought it was total chaos. I asked myself what I was doing there. When Miles said I was 'bad,' I didn't know he meant I was good. I thought I'd lost the gig."

On the Corner marked the beginning of a stint with Davis that saw Roy join the trumpeter both onstage and back in the studio, touring outside of New York and recording on the 1974 album Get Up with It. In his work with Davis, he could be found in the percussion section alongside drummer Al Foster and percussionist James Mtume.

In 1988, two decades after relocating to New York, Roy signed on with another cutting-edge jazz artist: saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Roy joined Prime Time, Coleman's funky electric ensemble, and appeared on their final album, 1995's Tone Dialing.

"Miles says, 'You start,'" Roy recalled to All About Jazz in 2009. "If he liked one groove, he would say, 'Keep that groove going. Don't change it.' He would want to keep it going, but after 30 seconds I wanted to change it. But with Ornette, he would always want me to change it. Completely different, but I had fun with both of them."

Amarenda Roy Chowdhury was born in 1939. "Badal," a nickname, is Bengali for "rain." Duke Ellington's 1963 stop in Pakistan — part of the tour that inspired the Grammy-winning Far East Suite — was Roy's entryway to jazz. Though he mostly learned on his own, Roy took his first tabla lessons from an uncle and studied with tabla master Alla Rakha in New York.

In addition to his work in jazz, a journey that also included studio time with Lonnie Liston Smith and Dave Liebman — whose 1975 track "Sweet Hand Roy" is a tribute to Roy — he also jammed with rock artists like Richie Havens and The Band's Garth Hudson. He appeared on the 1982 Yoko Ono album It's Alright (I See Rainbows), which features posthumous guitar playing from John Lennon.

Reflecting on his process as an improviser, Roy explained that his lack of classical training was actually a doorway to creativity. Where others were merely rehashing what they had studied, Roy was able to follow a truly spontaneous muse.

"I think I'm the only self-taught tabla drummer that doesn't have any classical training," Roy told All About Jazz. "I just feel whatever I feel at that moment, but those classical tabla players, they practice for eight hours a day for f****** 18 years and they want to go and play those lines. With me, it's not that. I want to play something and wait. Let it go. Let it rest. Give me some space."

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