On a sultry Sunday in mid-August 2021, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art celebrated its grand reopening with free public entry and musical fanfare, including a jazz ensemble near the museum steps. Their captivating music — unusual reinterpretations of traditional jazz standards that incorporate Indian and Middle Eastern classical melodies — attracted numerous bystanders who lined the nearby walls and filled seats at Mosaic Locale and adjacent bars and restaurants.

A trio of UC Santa Barbara professors forms the core of the band, aptly called Previously Committed. They augment their rigorous academic responsibilities by pouring their creative interests into music. Sumita Pennathur, a mechanical engineering professor, plays alto saxophone. Aashish Mehta, a political economics professor in the global studies department, excels on the keyboard, guitar and the Indian flute. Tevfik Bultan, professor and chair of the computer science department, commands the bass. He also writes most of the group’s music electronically; 80% of the songs are original compositions. The ensemble chose its name, Pennathur explains, “because one day I asked Henry Yang to come, and he said he was ‘previously committed’ (true story!).”

Pennathur and Mehta first met in 2007 through a fellow jazz musician while residing at the Willow Springs apartment complex near the UC Santa Barbara campus. Bultan later joined the duo to form an ensemble. They all share a passion for jazz and backgrounds in performing classical music from their family homelands in southern and northern India and Turkey.

“I think musical improvisation is a type of abstract self-expression, and it is fun”

 

Other musicians who perform regularly with Previously Committed include economic consultant Howard Park, a drummer who, according to Mehta, “can play any instrument”; Kirk Miller, on the tenor saxophone and clarinet; and singer Julie McMurray.

The demands of teaching, academic administration and family present challenges to extracurricular activities such as music in the professors’ schedules, but the band members all share a serious commitment to practice and a highly professional performance level. The group practices about once a week, usually a two-hour session on Saturday morning. They perform once a month or so at favorite local venues such as Draughtsmen Aleworks and Captain Fatty’s.

Practice and performances are often a family affair. Pennathur’s son Anthony, a sophomore at Dos Pueblos High School, plays tenor saxophone. Bultan’s daughter, Leyla, a Dos Pueblos junior, sings, plays piano and composes songs, while son Aydin drums and sings. Mehta’s 12-year-old daughter hopes to perform when she’s older. Spouses, children and friends all join in the fun at gigs.

When asked why they remain committed to their music, no matter how busy their schedules, band members echo similar sentiments. “It’s the thing that keeps us sane,” Mehta declares. Adds Pennathur, “It’s my release.”

Bultan explains, “It is not entirely clear to me why I love music as much as I do, but I do love it a lot. I love improvising, composing and improvising together with a band as you get to do in jazz. I think musical improvisation is a type of abstract self-expression, and it is fun.”

“... one day I asked Henry Yang to come, and he said he was ‘previously committed’ (true story!)”

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