Photo: Ethan Levitas (Courtesy of artist)

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo Pak Coalition: Agrima

The second recording by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and his Indo-Pak Coalition goes beyond South-Asian/Jazz fusion, incorporating drums, electronics, and a greater sense of power and adventure.

Agrima is the second recording by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa featuring his Indo-Pak Coalition, a trio with guitarist Rez Abbasi and percussionist Dan Weiss. In 2008 the trio released Apti, which featured original tunes by Mahanthappa that brought his experience with South Asian music into conversation with his work in jazz and American music generally. That was a wonderful record: featuring post-bop lines over driving tabla rhythms, post-Metheny guitar playing working with melodies pulled from the Indian continent, and mostly lots of work inspired by these cultural landscapes but drawn, mainly, from Mahanthappa’s heart.

The new recording comes almost a decade later, a time during which all three of these musicians have been
busy, together and apart. They are at the heart, for example, of Abbasi’s new Unfiltered Universe, an exploration of jazz and Carnatic music with a sextet. More often, though, they have been on individual journeys covering ’70s fusion, large group composition, the music of Charlie Parker, on and on. As a result, the group reunites with a fresh attack and broader range of tools, not recreating the excellent debut but creating something wider and, to my ears, richer.

Apti, Weiss stuck to tablas and Mahanthappa to alto saxophone, but the new recording finds the percussionist behind a drum kit most often and puts the leader in control of some interesting and well-integrated electronics. The title track, for example, begins with several synthesizer sequences that spin in counterpoint, beneath which Weiss brings in a drum groove inspired as much by hip-hop or James Brown as by Max Roach or a raga. The saxophone enters playing a new, complementary melody that intertwines with the synths, then continues in unison with Abbasi’s guitar as they drop out. The tune’s primary melody is accompanied by guitar that is more Jimi Hendrix than anything else — and Mahanthappa overdubs some additional saxophone lines to create call and response. With this gumbo of ingredients, the performance takes off — accelerandos, thrilling rave-ups, a distorted guitar solo, some truly explosive drumming. It becomes much more than South Asian/jazz fusion.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Indo-Pak Coalition still plays somewhat within the tradition. “Can-Did” begins very much there, beautifully contrasting a horn melody with an equally interesting guitar accompaniment and tabla patterns that are also melodic. The actual harmonic patterns, however, sound like they are drawn from modern jazz rather than Indian music — as if the Bill Evans Trio had traded in piano/bass/drums for different instruments. Slowly, it morphs into something more modern as Weiss moves from hand percussion to drum kit.

A similar journey is followed on “Snap”. A biting main saxophone motif kicks it off, with Abbasi coming in behind with with pedal-tone guitar. Weiss’s work begins on tablas and cymbals, and the saxophone picks up hints of electronic echo. Traditional call-and-response between saxophone and guitar is part of the head as well as a clean unison passage that could be from Bird and Diz, if you like. The leader solos freely over the pedal tone rather than any set of harmonic changes as does the guitar, but it’s Weiss’s solo that opens it all up: playing a drum kit over Mahanthappa’s repetition of the motif, he sounds like Steve Gadd at the end of Steely Dan’s “Aja”— ripping the tune and continuing to do so until the full theme returns. Hooo!

The most rocking thing here — and maybe the most ambitious form on
Agrima — is “Rasikapriya”. A tricky South Asian melody (or is it modern jazz with a thrilling jabbering rhythm?) roars in, but within 90 seconds the composition becomes impressionistic, with the groove melting away, electronics creating atmosphere, and a clean canvas opening up for a new polyrhythmic section. Mahanthappa solos over one kind of groove, then Abbasi gets an even more funky feel for his burning feature, which evolves and leads us back to the main theme.

“Revati” is almost a quarter hour of music, with a taste of progressive rock at the start. Abbasi plays a two-minute, searching cadenza over tonally gliding electronics before a traditional movement introduces a South Asian melody in tricky counterpoint. It double-times into Weiss introducing drums and travels through ambitious improvisations for the whole trio before coming back to tradition . . . and back to modernity again. And it is exhilarating.

“Take-Turns” is also riveting. Around the basic idea of call and response, it builds a sound that is sunny and bright — okay, let’s just call it what it is: Pat Metheny-esque — but still allows for the soloist to take chances. On tunes like this, the revelation is that you aren’t really missing a bass player. Abbasi holds down the low end on guitar effectively, and the relative harmonic freedom that is gained seems worth it.

Agrima has a slight flaw, it is in the electronics. While these effects used by Mahanthappa and Weiss (and, of course, the guitar effects available to Abbasi as a guitarist) are interesting and well-integrated, they don’t have a clear identity. For example, “Showcase” uses a simple three-chord pattern as the basis for improvisation, and it works because of melodic invention, tonal variation, and arrangement. But the dressed-up electronics are the thinnest of elements of the arrangement.

Agrima is a remarkable step in Mahanthappa’s music because it takes his Indo-Pak Coalition and its music and makes us hear it and feel it as much more than an experiment in cross-cultural fusion. It is a pleasure to listen to these tracks and forget about the source of the melodies or the intelligence behind the musical melding of cultures. It impacts you more elementally than that: as great music that gives individual expression to three compelling personalities. And that’s what great jazz does every time out.