Rudresh Mahanthappa has reached a level of balance and power in his music after a decade of prominent recording, composing, and leadership. In 2013, his art is so heavy that only a beast of band can set him up to express the great breadth of his personality. This current quartet seems to be that band.
Gamak features a quartet led by Mahanthappa’s acidic alto saxophone and fleshed out by electric guitar from David Fiucynski, Francois Moutin on acoustic bass, and drums courtesy of Dan Weiss. But the band proves to be both precise and highly versatile. Fiucynski, most notably, is able to bend strings and use his effects such that he can simulate the microtonal action necessary to give voice to the leader’s South Asian-tinged tunes—while a the same time having huge jazz chops and the tone, crunch, and firepower necessary to rip up the material here that bleeds over to fusion and even rock.
Rudresh Mahanthappa has made a fusion or rock album? No, not exactly, but this one is different. And wonderful.
The opener establishes things perfectly. “Waiting is Forbidden” starts with the saxophone playing an aggressively stabbed line in repetition, and then the guitar comes in with a syncopated funk figure, with the rhythm section syncopating things further so that the sound is a thick nest of groove rhythm. When the melody enters, it is played by alto and guitar in rough unison, but with Fiucynski sounding just a touch like a sitar. As all of this builds, Mahanthappa brings back the opening stabbing figure and the guitar continues a rock-edged melodic counterpoint.
In short, Whew!, you think, as all the music swirls and grooves and unspools eventually in improvisation that is backed up by a new stop-time groove. This is most certainly music with a fusion element, but it’s “fusion” moved far beyond any 1970s aesthetic. It uses power, electricity, precision, and groove—no doubt—but it has little of the slickness of, say, Return to Forever. And just as this thought crosses your mind, around 6:30 into the tune, Fiucynski wraps a big fuzz tone around a line that could have come from “Hymn for the Seventh Galaxy” while drummer Dan Weiss lays down thick rock drumming every bit as fusiony as Lenny White or Billy Cobham at their most 1970s-ish. And that’s not a bad thing: it’s great! Because the original melody comes back in over this groove and ties things up in a delicious, complex bow.
And, again, you say, Whew!!
The other critical player in the versatility of this band is Weiss, who comes with a background in South Asian hand drumming and full command of an American jazz-rock kit. He is everywhere on Gamak, accenting intelligently, bashing as necessary, keeping things popping and syncopated, but never getting too cute.
“Stay I” is based on a bouncing funk line for bass and guitar around which Weiss dances his cymbals in a party. The melody, though, has the sad lilt of classic Ornette Coleman tune. There is a bittersweet playfulness that is established immediately, and then the band ends it after 2:22.
Weiss also leads the way on the material that sounds most like traditional “jazz”. “Copernicus” burns like a Coltrane tune, with Weiss and Mahanthappa playing in fiery duet for the first 40 seconds and the band coming in for the next half, chords flying, tempo fast, notes everywhere until it all converges on a simple lick, repeated.
The most imposing voice on Gamak, of course, remains Mahanthappa. His tone and imagination on alto saxophone are now as identifiable as those of Wayne Shorter or Joe Lovano, even though he’s been on the scene a fraction as long. Mahanthappa plays with a vinegar-sharp tone that cuts through the rest of the band and colors all his melodies with urgency. He tends to improvise in headlong rushes of notes that run in patterns not practiced from the usual bag-of-blues or II-V-I practice book. His runs are jagged. They zigzag with precision, but—again—the rhythmic pattern he follows is not merely the dotted-sixteenth stutter-joy or bop or hard bop. Mahanthappa moves across the music generating a state of near-continual surprise. It can be unsettling at first, but it unspools like a beautiful storm of energy and light.
Fiucynski plays on these tunes with incredible resourcefulness. “Wrathful Wisdom” finds him in a particularly creative frame—playing a new take on the blues around the edges of the theme, bending and cracking outside the harmony on his solos, seeming to be able to find new ways of winding through his strings so that it seems like he is inventing new scales beyond the usual diatonic and chromatic options. And though comparisons can be limiting, it seems like some of the cool stuff that Mary Halvorson has been doing on her big axe are making their way into the larger scene—Fiucynski has either been listening or has gotten there, intriguingly, on his own. It’s a liberating sound, suggesting that all the things you can do with an electric guitar haven’t been exhausted by Jimi Hendrix and Bill Frisell.
Part of the fun of Gamak is that there are longer tunes (“Lots of Interest” and “Abhogi” run about seven minutes each) with longer solos and more complex compositional structures and there are quickies too—the latter being rare on jazz records these days. Sometimes, Mahanthappa seems to be saying, you can present a good tune quickly and that’s enough. Amen.
Also, these shorter tunes make it easier for this rising star—and let’s be fair now, he’s really just an established star at this point—to showcase his incredible breadth. There are moments here that seem almost out of character and that expand your notion of the music that is native to Mahanthappa’s heart. “Majesty of the Blues” (a title, I must note with humor, that seems to come straight from the Wynton Marsalis playbook but that is gloriously thrown over here) starts with a mad saxophonic squeal that is quickly underpinned by a driving rock groove centered around two three-note licks played with tear-it-up crunch by Moutin and Fiucynski’s guitar. It’s an all-out assault, and it’s fun to hear a jazz player improvising with abandon for just one minute over a pattern that is harmonically simple but rhythmically urgent. Before two minutes are up, the tune stops on a dime and you are dazzled.
Rudresh Mahanthappa is rushing headlong with his music these days, dazzling. Happily, there’s no sign that he’ll be stopping so suddenly any time soon.