With the number of hybrids combining Indian classical music and jazz, it is becoming one of those things that makes an artist seem a lot more musically intelligent than they actually are. At this point, the fusion is nothing revolutionary. Trilok Gurtu has combined tabla technique and jazz percussion into his drumming for years. Fareed Haque does, however, have something to add to this mix. His Pakistani heritage and education allows him to be equally versed in the music of the Indian subcontinent and jazz. Thus, Flat Planet offers a more saturated fusion of these two genres, as Haque’s well-rooted knowledge allows him to experiment with new rhythms and melodies.
In most decent jazz albums, every instrumentalist demonstrates a proficient level of technicality throughout, and Fareed Haque and the Flat Earth Ensemble are no exception. Haque’s guitar schools are nothing short of virtuosic, but he never puts himself too far in the forefront that his solos become egotistical. And as “Big Bhangra” demonstrates, he possesses the sensitivity to build into his more technical moments, using space in the way that Miles Davis so immortalized. Despite putting his name in front of the Flat Earth Ensemble, the group sounds very cohesive and on equal standing with each other. It just so happens that Haque wrote most of these songs.
Rhythmically, the album is very complex. While most Indian-jazz fusions like to rely on the mix of 4/4 Indian grooves and instrumental virtuosity, Haque decides to play with time signature and syncopation. Haque composed “Uneven Mantra” entirely in 7/8, which, in contrast to his contemporaries, takes a jazz groove and puts Eastern modal melodies and accents over top of it. “32 Taxis” is, according to Haque’s album notes, an invention in the studio based on the rhythm cycle created by kanjira player Ganesh Kumar. Anyone who has participated in a drumline of some sort will probably have played through a similar rhythm cycle, but Haque layers himself on acoustic and electric guitar making music out of the otherwise rudimentary rhythm.
With technical, inventive solos and rhythmically complex songs, Haque has formed a basis for a great fusion album. What pulls the album down is its length. It plays for an hour and fifteen minutes and includes three out of four movements of Haque’s The Four Corner Suite. It ends the album on a confusing note because the suite does not fit the style of the rest of the album. Introducing a decidedly more jazzy sound, including saxophone, that just happens to have tabla behind it, the suite could easily have stood, in its entirety, as its own release. Three of the songs exceed ten minutes without once changing the groove, and the chord progressions are not interesting enough to sustain themselves for such a length. The longest song, “Fur Peace” is a meditative almost-ballad that probably could have lost four minutes without losing any real substance.
Thus, it is the shorter tracks that really make the statements. “Bengali Bud” shows off all of Haque’s technical capabilities in a smooth five minutes and features Indrajit Banerjee on sitar, who often doubles Haque’s lines. The song is almost strictly classical Indian, as the only percussion is tabla, and the only Western instrument is Haque’s guitar, which plays Eastern modes anyway. “Blu Hindoo” does the opposite. It is almost entirely jazz in groove and structure, except the melodies and sometimes the rhythmic accents draw from the Indian spectrum. The extreme length of the longer songs is truly unfortunate because all of them have excellent foundations that would have been the standout tracks at shorter lengths.
Fareed Haque and the Flat Earth Ensemble certainly perform music with a focused, impressive blend of jazz and Indian music, but the album perhaps gets too narcissistic for its own good. Sure, Haque gives everyone a chance to show their talent, but the listener will not necessarily sit through five minutes of the same person soloing. For anyone interested in the blend of jazz and Indian music, however, Fareed Haque is someone worth checking out.