When discussing the release his last album Samdhi, saxophone extraordinaire Rudresh Mahanthappa described his music as “a place where Western elements and Indian elements can mingle very easily and very freely and results in something that, hopefully, hadn’t been heard before.” Although Mahanthappa is a second generation American, he went back to the land of his parents and intently absorbed the traditional music of their Indian homeland so thoroughly, you’d have sworn he was born and raised there. But Mahanthappa is very much steeped in American jazz and was already teasing its boundaries from his debut album Yatra (1994) onward. He’s been overtly “mingling” the two musical worlds, achieving the greatest success with his masterful Kinsmen (2008). The projects that have followed (Indo-Pak Coalition, MSG, Samdhi, and the Dakshina Ensemble that made Kinsmen) have pursued his dual interests even further. Because Mahanthappa has utilized so many different ensembles with different constructions and players, it’s helped him to get different results when melding together the two cultures that he personifies. And, in spite of the variance, the quality holds up across all configurations.
Now, a new combo is unveiled. As with Samdhi, Mahanthappa is bed rocked by a powerful, agile rhythm section, this time from Rudresh Mahanthappa Quartet carryovers bassist François Moutin, and drummer Dan Weiss. The primary instrument of change from Samdhi or any of the prior Indo-American excursions comes from the king of microtonal guitar himself, David Fiuczynski.
Fiuczynski and Mahanthappa first put their talents together in Jack DeJohnette’s band recently and immediately found a chemistry that was too compelling to leave behind in someone else’s group. It ended up directly influencing how Mahanthappa composed for this new band, and the new album spawned by it, Gamak.
The reasons for why Fiuczynski’s guitar is such an ideal new vehicle for carrying out the worldly and acute musical vision of Mahanthappa has a lot to do with the most obvious feature of South Indian music: the use of microtones. Without have to adapt his own style a single iota, he fits in with that vision hand in glove. “Fuze” is not all microtones: he brings extensive understanding of modern classical, punk rock and experimental rock with Mahavishnu-like firepower.
It’s a little less “electric” this time out with Moutin’s articulate acoustic bass (check out his call-and-response feature on “F”) replacing a plugged-in one and the absence of any effects, but there remains plenty of electricity Gamak has more of the purified improvisation found in jazz, all the while retaining the exotic appeal and distinctiveness of Eastern music and the drive of progressive rock.
That’s what’s so cool about “Waiting Is Forbidden,” a song marked by this rapid run through some south Asian scale harmonized by prog rock progressions. Fuze and Rudresh double up on “Abhogi” in the creation of an odd but pretty sound. The guitarist’s style suggests everything from Indian to blues to reggae, and he tears off an alien solo that’s not worldly, it’s otherworldly. Along with Mahanthappa’s dynamic excursions, the song is a bit like Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time performing a raga. The cooperation between the two also make “Wrathful Wisdom” an exceptional performance, whether they are playing subcontinent lines in unison or soloing around each other.
In looking forward, Mahanthappa also goes back: “Are There Clouds In India” was first introduced on his second album Black Water, and “We’ll Make More” is based on “Balancing Act” from the same album. The former is played looser than before, with the leader taking more chances, and the latter features some smoldering, chromatic lines from Fuze.
Let’s not forget that regardless of the styles being created here, Mahanthappa’s prowess on the alto sax has the ability to astound on its own. His voluminous, nimble manner propels songs such as his intro on “Stay I” and the “Countdown” cousin “Copernicus.”
The band winks at us with the ending track “Majesty Of The Blues,” which is neither majestic nor blues-y, it’s all-out punk; about as opposite from exotic as you can get.
Rudresh Mahanthappa continues to deluge us with ideas that draw from so many sources, East and West, and succeeds in creating something that “hadn’t been heard before.” The partnership with David Fiuczynski presented so many new possibilities and Mahanthappa might have exploited every single one of them on Gamak. This is getting jazz in 2013 off to a roaring start.
Gamak is slated for release January 23, on ACT Music Records. Visit Rudresh Mahanthappa’s website for more info.