Relix: Abstract Logix’s Souvik Dutta: Manifesting Intent and Humility with The Grateful Dead, Col. Bruce and Shakti

Dean Budnick of Relic writes:

While growing up in Calcutta, India, during the 1980s, Souvik Dutta had no expectation that he would attend college in the United States, then travel the world while pursuing his passion for music. Even after he arrived in the U.S. in 1991, he had no plans to enter the music business, which began 11 years later with his creation of a music blog called Abstract Logix. That soon transformed into a record label, which has issued albums by John McLaughlin, Jimmy Herring, Oz Noy, Wayne Krantz, Debashish Bhattacharya and many others.

Abstract Logix’s 2023 release, Shakti’s This Moment—which Dutta executive-produced with his wife Shweta—recently won a Grammy Award for Best Global Music Album. This is the second such honor for Abstract Logix, following McLaughlin’s “Miles Beyond” from 2017’s Live @ Ronnie Scott’s, which received a Grammy for Best Improvised Jazz Solo.

Photo: Jamie Soja

As Dutta considers his ongoing journey, the 51-year-old label owner, who has also maintained a career as a programmer for IBM, explains, “Music was always my passion, and the music that I release on my label means a lot to me personally. The economics are not that great in the music field anymore, so what’s the point of putting music out if I don’t love it? I’m going to keep doing this until the day I die. It’s more important than ever because the technology companies have dictated how files should be distributed, streamed and heard. I think the people most affected are not your top 50, 300 or even 500 most successful bands, it’s everybody else. I think there are a lot of us who work in the periphery—whether it’s as a music journalist, a music producer, an engineer or someone on the road— and we all have our parts to play in order to keep this thing alive.”

The Grateful Dead became important to you while growing up. How did you discover them?

The British left India in 1947, which was way before I was born, and sailors who would come to India would bring music from the West. I had a friend or two whose brothers used to be in the Merchant Navy, and they used to bring us vinyl.

The way we found out about the Grateful Dead, though, wasn’t from the Grateful Dead directly, but from a band that used to cover the music of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Little Feat and all of that stuff. That band, called High, doesn’t exist anymore because the main, founding person died. His name was Dilip Balakrishnan and he died of cancer about a year before I moved to the United States. He was the primary person that introduced the music of the ‘60s and the ‘70s to India because he used to play that music live.

Dilip founded High with two important Indian musicians, Nondon Bagchi and Lew Hilt, both of whom are still living. They were instrumental in bringing rock music into a live setting for many of us in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Without High, we would have never experienced the music of Dylan, Traffic, the Grateful Dead and these other bands. There are thousands of Indians who have never seen the Grateful Dead, but they consider themselves Deadheads.

This was pre-MTV, pre-internet and we had only two or three channels at the time. There were these monthly TV shows and, on one of the shows, I’d see little clips of Pink Floyd or Jerry and the Dead. It was so exciting for a 15-year-old guy living in India, loving rock-and-roll. I had already discovered the music of the Grateful Dead, but then I started to see visuals of these guys. Even just seeing a photo was a big thing. Information was not that widely available then.

I grew up in Calcutta, which was a city of 10-15 million people in the ‘80s. We had almost no live music from a real band from the West, though maybe the U.S. Embassy brought in a jazz artist or somebody like that. I used to go see local cover bands playing the music of the Dead, Little Feat and the Allman Brothers from fifth or sixth grade onward—that was when my parents would let me go out. I also saw Shakti in ‘84, which I barely remember. But apart from that, the first live experience for me in India was an Amnesty concert in the late ‘80s with Peter Gabriel, Sting and Youssou N’Dour. That was my first live experience of a band from outside India.

What prompted you to come to the United States?

What prompted me was the Grateful Dead. I was so deep into the music, and I had to see it. I didn’t come from a very wealthy family or anything, but my parents figured out a way for me to go to school here.

The first gig I saw was Van Halen, which was one of my favorite bands at the time. The second gig was Halloween ‘91 with the Allman Brothers and Little Feat. Right after that was Jerry Band, but I had to wait until the spring for the Grateful Dead. I had 50 bucks in my pocket, so I couldn’t get on a plane and go to a New Year’s Eve show. I waited until the following spring, and my first Grateful Dead Show was in ‘92 at the Omni in Atlanta.

I even dropped out of school for three semesters from age 19-20, from ‘93 until Jerry died, and toured with the Dead. I was one of those Deadheads traveling the country selling beers and T-shirts and going to see the next show.

After Jerry passed away, I went back to school and I finished in ‘97. Then I went and got me a real life job. I had no connection to the music business or anything of that sort, but I always went to see music.

Abstract Logix began with a blog. How did that originate?

In 2002, we wanted to have a little reunion of dear friends from college. My house was kind of centrally located and we wanted to have music. I had met Jeff Sipe, the drummer for ARU, a couple of weeks before that. He was doing a little tour of the East Coast with Shawn Lane, who was one of greatest relatively unknown guitar players—I would put him in the same category as Hendrix. He died in 2003.

So I had a private party for this reunion, and Shawn Lane, Jeff Sipe and Jonas Hellborg played in my living room. The deal from Jonas was, “I’ll come and play at your house if you broadcast the show on the internet.” This was pre-YouTube, but because I come from a technology area, I had a friend who owned a little server company in D.C. We figured out how to broadcast the gig from my living room via my little blog. I had to come up with the name and register the domain and the site within two days because the guys were coming to my house to play.

Then the next thing you know, bands would come to the area, and I’d go see the show and put up a picture. That was kind of how it started.

There’s an album by Shawn Lane and Jonas Hellborg called Abstract Logic. Is that a coincidence or are they entwined in some way?

Yes, I was heavily influenced by that music. Abstraction is a really important concept in object oriented programming in software development. By definition, it’s taking something from a bigger picture to a smaller one. It collects smaller units to make that whole concept—you learn how to take the big picture and break it up into a million small pictures. So because I come from a software development background and that Abstract Logic album by Shawn and Jonas was so important to me, I changed the C to an X at the end. I was also very into X Programming—Extreme Programming. So that’s how I came up with the name.

How did this then lead to the record label?

A year later, I reached out to John McLaughlin’s manager in Paris, when I found out they were coming here on a tour, and I volunteered myself to go sell records and live the life on the road. So me and a couple of my Deadhead friends flew to Colorado— Boulder was the first of 21 shows—and we drove around the country selling records.

Then I met Jimmy Herring via Jeff Sipe. ARU had been a favorite band in the ‘90s when I went to school. I’d see ARU at Ziggy’s and the Cat’s Cradle. I was introduced to Jimmy Herring, who was like, “You work for John McLaughlin? He’s my hero.” So because I worked with John, Jimmy wanted to find out about me.

It was Jimmy who sold me the first project—that Project Z record, Lincoln Memorial. He told me: “Souvik, I want to give you a fair warning. Nobody will want to listen to this music. This is musical vomit of an extreme proportion.”

I remember Ricky Keller [who was also in Project Z, along with Sipe] describing that music to me as vomit. It was quality vomit, though.

That’s a great way to describe it—quality vomit. You have to understand, I was a 25-year-old guy. I had no idea about the record business or anything like that. I just had some weird force behind me to do this. Through Jeff Sipe, I met Jimmy for lunch, and he said, “Do you want to buy this record?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “Do you want to hear it?” I said, “No, I don’t need to hear it.” He said, “It’s vomit.” I said, “I don’t care.” And that’s how I started.

After the Project Z album, where did you go from there?

What happened was John McLaughlin called me and said, “I really like how you worked during the American tour. If you have time, I would like you to come around with me at all my shows and sell merchandise.” So I went around the world and sold records for him. I got more confident, I made some money, and started to put that into my own produced projects, and I also bought records.

When you have John McLaughlin’s name connected to you, that leads to other people. Terry Bozzio and other musicians started to connect with me.

Then John said, “Hey, do you want to distribute my next record?” So that was the start of it. What fueled it was the money from the merchandising, selling it on site, then coming back and investing the money into creative projects.

You did all this while working a day job. Can you describe that balance?

Well, because I was a developer, they would give me the coding assignment and I would write the code and deliver. Whether I was on a flight to Tokyo or sitting somewhere else, all that mattered for my team was that I delivered my work. I would get onto a phone call, be in a meeting, do all this stuff and they never asked where I was.

I’ve been at the Montreux [Jazz] Festival tuning drums and taking a conference call at the same time. That was not too long ago. Or I’ve stood outside New Morning in Paris, had a cigarette and taken a call. I’d set everything up, take a conference call with IBM and then go back and retune the drums.

I listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead like it’s going out of style, but anything on Abstract Logix is music that I love, whether it’s Jimmy Herring, John McLaughlin, somebody less known like Paul Hanson or someone like Mandolin Srinivas. Nowadays, if I don’t love something music-wise, I don’t even talk about it.

You saw Shakti in 1984 and then, 40 years later, you won a Grammy with them. Can you talk about that turn of events?

On Sundays, my dad used to play vinyl because it was a day off for him. My parents’ love was classical music so that would be Ali Akbar Khan, Bismillah Khan, Amjad Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar. They would also play Shakti, especially that record Natural Elements. The intro section of the song “Mind Ecology” on Natural Elements freaked me out. I must have played that 10,000 times in a row. [Laughs.]

I got hit by music pretty early, but I also took time off from that music. I got into rock-and-roll, which was a calling for me. It was rock-and-roll more than John McLaughlin.

Zakir Hussain was a bigger-than-life personality for just about every Indian in the ‘80s. His father [Alla Rakha] was this godlike person who accompanied Ravi Shankar for three decades. Outside of the music, Zakir Hussain was on a television tea commercial 15 times a day. He was on the cover of GQ India as the sexiest man alive in the mid ‘80s. He’s as big as Tom Cruise in India. He’s just special, with the level and variety of success he’s had. After working with him for a few years, my level of respect is even higher.

What happened with Shakti was that Mandolin Srinivas passed away in 2014. He was the absolute guy on that instrument. Miles Davis and George Harrison both had their minds blown by him when he was still very young. He was Col. Bruce’s favorite musician for many years, and Bruce had personally called, asking if he would open the final ARU tour, but he died before it could happen.

After he passed away, Shakti was over, never to be talked about. But at one point, some years later, after a conversation with John, I had this feeling that he wanted to do a Shakti gig. Since there was no replacement for Srinivas on mandolin, John and Zakir decided to bring in Ganesh [Rajagopalan] on violin. Both of them had known Ganesh for a long time.

In March 2020, right before the pandemic, I came back to the U.S. from the two gigs we did—one was in Singapore and one was in my hometown of Calcutta. They were stupendous shows and the guys had so much fun that I sent out a feeler to the two leaders. I was like, “What’s the chance we can bring this band back?” It seemed to be encouraging, but then came the pandemic and everything stopped.

Fast-forward eight or nine months, John reached out to me and said, “I have to write some music. We have to play. I don’t care if we’re spread out all over the world. Let’s do something.” So that was the start. I spent a year and four months on Zooms, every Sunday or every other Sunday, coordinating home recordings from five cities around the world, all orchestrated out of a studio in Chennai that recorded the tracks on video. There was latency, but the engineers figured it out.

Then at the end, while the pandemic was still there but things were easing up, they flew to John’s house and they did some work together before John took over.

That record happened primarily because of John McLaughlin and his leadership. For an 80-year-old man to coordinate a completely new recording, write music, be technologically savvy, mix, master and do everything on his own, was amazing.

What was your reaction to the recognition that came from winning the Grammy?

Col. Bruce Hampton taught me a lot of things, including intent and humility. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for all this recognition, but I’m the guy behind the scenes. I feel like my role is to do my own little thing in my own way to help keep the music going. I think that’s my niche in life.

Read the article in Relix.