The history of jazz is sprinkled with out-of-the-way instruments, but surely it has never attracted a less likely solo vehicle than the sarangi. This short-necked fiddle, played like a cello, is rooted in Indian classical and folk music, but even there it has become a rarity due to its exceptional technical difficulty.
Yet this is the instrument on which Surinder Sandhu is building a career which seems to recognise no international or stylistic boundaries. Originally from Wolverhampton, Sandhu brings his Birminghambased band to MAC on Thursday for a rare appearance on home ground, jointly promoted by Sampad and Birmingham Jazz.
Sandhu made his recording debut with SauRang Orchestra, which juxtaposed such jazz luminaries as guitarist Steve Vai and saxophonist Andy Sheppard with both Indian instruments and an 18-strong classical ensemble drawn from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. That was followed up last year by Cycles and Stories, featuring his present band. So how did Sandhu find his way into this stylistically complex musical world?
"I started off playing the clarinet - it was my grandfather's. I was really fanatical about Duke Ellington and his saxophonists, Paul Gonsalves and Ben Webster, and I also listened to Charlie Parker - just phenomenal!
"It's interesting, because I love Indian music, but for a generation growing up in the 70s the only link we had back to India was some videos of films and going to temples. That's a natural thing, it's always been there, from going to temples and listening to the great composers of Indian films. But jazz was probably the first music I actively went out and explored."
It was through film soundtracks that he first fell in love with the sound of the sarangi, though at the time he had no idea what the instrument was.
"It's one of the instruments, like the sitar, that was always on film soundtracks, being played on songs. For Indian music it's perfect because it's breathless. Indian music has no corners, the sound is all rounded. I had to learn it, much as I love the saxophone and those instruments.
"You have to go to India to study it. It was a dying tradition and there's just a handful of players. I studied with Sabri Khan and I still study with him. That was quite a long process, and then I came back to England and began to work with the sarangi here, starting various different projects."
His memory is a little hazy as to how exactly he got from that point to this one, though somewhere near the beginning there was a collaboration with a flamenco guitarist.
After SauRang Orchestra Sandhu experienced a year-long writing block while putting his new band together, with Miles Levin (son of renowned Birmingham drummer Tony Levin) on drums, and Dave Clarke on bass guitar.
There was a vacancy for a guitarist who needed to be versatile on both acoustic and electric instruments as well as technically adept. It was Clarke who suggested the then 22 year-old Peter Brown, who was working in a music shop.
"He had already learned some parts from the first album, even though he hadn't heard I was in England, let alone in Birmingham," Sandhu recalls.
It is evident from Cycles and Stories that Brown is an exceptionally gifted player. But Sandhu enthuses about all his musicians, singling out Levin's ability to accommodate tricky Indian timecycles which can incorporate units of five and a half beats.
"The way we treat rhythm in Indian music is very particular, and for someone outside that culture to come in on that is quite terrific - particularly when you're playing at breakneck tempo."
Although he has played with better known musicians, the commitment and willingness of the players in this band to rehearse and learn new techniques enables them to go deeper, he says.
"The band I have at the moment is better than the famous guys. It's a band of incredibly gifted musicians who sit down, learn and listen. There's an old saying in India that two amateur musicians who rehearse are better than two professionals that haven't met. That's really powerful and we're playing continually in a number of countries. It's something I was striving to do for a while."
Initially the band was playing material from SauRang Orchestra, and Cycles and Stories grew spontaneously from what was meant to be a more modest recording project.
"We had been playing a few dates with this line-up and my executive producer wanted me to do an EP. But once I got into the studio I was really enjoying it and so I just decided to record an album.
"The first night I went home and started writing new material. I was writing until 3 or 4 in the morning and brought the pieces into the studio each day. I didn't revise any of them because I wanted to have this really fresh album.
"I think that spontaneity is needed at times. I've been producing records for a label here and you get these singer/songwriters who are working on the same song and they go over it again and again. You want to say, just record it! People like Elvis and the Beatles wrote these classic, classic tunes and they were often first takes."
Since recording the album, the band has moved on considerably in live performance, he feels.
"I think what's happened is that we have basically become a lot more natural. We're very comfortable with what we're doing and we're now able to focus on filling the spaces. "I gave the brief to the guys that we want to play as many concerts as possible. We're playing at MAC on the 30th, then next day I'm going to Barcelona, then we go to Chicago, Switzerland, Austria, India, Singapore, Austria, then we're in America again, in Los Angeles." The band playing on Thursday has grown to an eight-piece, with the addition of sarod and tenor and soprano saxophones.
"The concert is put together like a show with lighting, and we try to do it so the tunes elide into each other. Generally we like to play for two and-a-half hours without an interval, but sometimes venues insist on an interval! We play really quietly but then as loud as Metallica - the dynamics of the band are so huge."
n Surinder Sandhu plays MAC on Thursday at 8pm (Box office: 0121 440 3838). Cycles and Stories is on Resonator Records.
For more information, visit www.surindersandhu.com