Astoria Characters: The Sax-Playing Konnakol Artist

It happened on his eighth birthday.

Arun Luthra was strolling through town with his older brother when suddenly, they turned a corner, and there it was.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun with his 1938 Selmer Balanced Action sax.

A guitar leaning against a wall.

Arun, a tall man with a sweet voice and soulful eyes, gets emotional every time he talks about this long-ago surprise gift and the key role it has played in his life.

“I still have it,” he says.

Arun was born loving music.

And how could he not?

His father, an amateur musician who played the tabla, listened to music from India, his home country, all the time, and Arun’s brother and sister played musical instruments and loved the rhythm of rock records.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun started playing the sax as a teenager.

The family of his mother, who is British, was filled with enough musicians to form an orchestra.

Arun, who says he’s always found music “captivating,” put that birthday present to good use: He took lessons in European classical guitar.

At that time, he was living in Brussels, Belgium, which is where his family moved a couple of years after his birth in Worcester, Massachusetts.

He loved playing that guitar, but he quit practicing for no particular reason – “my feelings about music hadn’t changed,” he says.

By the time the family had moved to the Jersey Shore, 12-year-old Arun was looking for a replacement instrument.

He settled on the snare drum, a rental from his public school.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun’s instruments are vintage.

“I was supposed to have a lesson once a week during recess, but I would forget to go – it wasn’t a form of rebellion, I just couldn’t remember that I was supposed to do this,”  he says.

Searching for a different beat, he tried out the trombone, but that, too, went the way of the snare drum.

“Then I tried the sax,” he says and smiles. “It stuck.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun has played with famous jazz and pop stars.

He’s not sure why he took to the instrument, but he has a vivid memory of listening to someone play the tenor sax during a radio performance of the song “Sentimental Journey.”

Soon, he joined the school’s concert band and was playing duets with a friend.

But he was a teenager, after all, and he had another interest, theoretical physics, that he was equally passionate about.

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun is a musician, arranger and composer.

His father, a scientist, was keen for Arun to follow in his footsteps and was delighted when Arun enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley as a physics major.

But as soon as he got into the classroom, Arun couldn’t wait to leave.

“It was an existential crisis,” he says. “I was starved for music. After one year, I could not go on.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun plays tenor and soprano sax.

He moved to Boston, where he lived with his brother, to figure out what he wanted to do with his life.

“I started taking sax lessons again, focusing on jazz, and I found my sea legs,” he says. “I moved back to Sacramento, California with my parents. I took lessons and practiced 13 to 14 hours a day. And I started getting work.”

Eventually, he made his way to New York City, where he earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in jazz and contemporary music from The New School. (In 2021, he added a master’s of music degree, in jazz studies and composition, from Queens College.)

“I got a lot of on-the-job training,” he says, adding that “my musical world expanded.”

Soon, Arun and his sax were playing and recording with many of the greatest jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and pop artists in the world – Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Mike Stern, Kenny Garrett, Joe Chambers, Charli Persip, Dennis Irwin, Ze Renato, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Frankie Valli, Bobby Short, Lew Soloff and Bernard Purdie.

In his performances, Arun, who has been on stage with and/or studied with Carnatic and Hindustani music masters, often includes konnakol, the art of imitating percussion syllables vocally in South Indian Carnatic music.

“Music is integral to who I am as a living thing,” says Arun, who’s a faculty member at the School of Jazz in The New School’s College of Performing Arts as well as a band leader, a composer and an arranger. “Me not making music is like a plant not getting sunlight.”

Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Arun’s music reflects his diverse background.

Arun’s diverse and eclectic performances stem from his background, which, he says, “is the intersection of all different things – India, Britain, the United States and Europe — and it feels most natural to be expressive of those things. I celebrate all cultures. I hope folks can relate to it.”

And it all started with that first guitar, given so long ago.

Copyright 2023 by Nancy A. Ruhling