Jazz CD Reviews

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak – ACT

Musical evolution which goes from prog-jazz to post bop.

Published on February 25, 2013

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak – ACT

Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak – ACT 9537-2, 57:53 ****:

(Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski – electric guitar; François Moutin – acoustic bass; Dan Weiss – drums)

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has developed his hybrid style of jazz over the course of 13 albums as leader or co-leader, starting with 1997’s Yatra, which introduced Mahanthappa’s influences, which involve Steve Coleman and the M-Base movement, the other Coleman (Ornette), and Indian inspirations. Mahanthappa’s latest: the all-originals, nearly hour-long, 11-track outing Gamak, continues the sax man’s evolution. This time he debuts a new band with some familiar faces. Gamak reunites Mahanthappa’s rhythm section, bassist François Moutin (who has issued solo material and performed with his twin brother) and drummer Dan Weiss (a progressive player with rock and jazz experience, including a stint with guitarist Rez Abassi, who incidentally participated on Mahanthappa’s 2008 Indo-jazz project, Kinsmen). Weiss, Moutin and Mahanthappa were last heard together on Mahanthappa’s 2006 record, Codebook. Generating a fresh and different tone is double-neck guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, an expansive jazz/fusion musician who has worked with John Medeski and John Zorn, and fronts the funk-metal ensemble Screaming Headless Torsos. His impact is detailed in a five-minute, online, promotional video.

The title, Gamak, is derived from a term for ornamentation in Indian classical music, which in that situation refers to a very specific, stylized and intentional melodic adornment, not necessarily something unplanned. That fits Mahanthappa’s ideas on re-contextualizing jazz into something multi-directional, bold and inventive. That notion can be perceived on the opener “Waiting Is Forbidden,” prompted by a Mona Hatoum objet d’art which hangs in the Brooklyn Museum. Mahanthappa’s extensive piece (at almost nine minutes, the longest) has a muscular, prog-jazz slope, with intricate time changes; a funky, lowdown foundation; and at the conclusion some of Fiuczynski’s patented jazz-punk riffs (sometimes he brings to mind early Robert Fripp). Throughout the cut, Mahanthappa showcases his explorative nature, challenging the other musicians while also letting them improvise across the melody. As the number finishes, Mahanthappa can be heard aptly asserting, “That was pretty smoking.” The band’s punkish energy also infiltrates the closer, the brief but potent “Majesty of the Blues,” which may have the same title as a Wynton Marsalis composition, but is light years more aggressive and ballistic, especially the way it abruptly ends in mid note, as if chopped asunder by a hatchet.

A sense of history is replete on two cuts. First there is the melancholic-to-uncompromising “Are There Clouds in India?,” which fans may recognize from Mahanthappa’s 2002 record, Black Water. The former version featured pianist Vijay Iyer. While Mahanthappa retains the moody melody and post-jazz orientation, Fiuczynski brings a distinctive quality to the music, shifting from plaintive, background strums to front-loaded forcefulness. The harmonic and dissonant dynamism between Fiuczynski and Mahanthappa is also a highlight here. Mahanthappa mixes current creativity and previous resourcefulness on the knotty “We’ll Make More,” which is built on the same raga and beat cycle utilized on another Black Water composition, “Balancing Act,” although any Indian stimulus might not be apparent to most listeners. This is another outstanding showpiece for Fiuczynski and Mahanthappa’s integrated interaction, as well as Weiss’ sharp-edged drums and Moutin’s vigorous bass.

Each Mahanthappa composition displays his restless imagination and striking modernism, but “Wrathful Wisdom” (the title emanates from Buddhist philosophy) is noticeable with its complex changes, conceptually demanding structure and the use of alternative fingerings on the sax. Hearing “Wrathful Wisdom” it comes as no surprise Mahanthappa won the 2012 Downbeat International Critics Poll as alto saxophonist of the year. Mahanthappa’s pensive but no less powerful side is evident on the contemplative “Ballad for Troubled Times,” where the alto saxist supplies sensitive, lingering lines echoed by Moutin’s haunting bass chords and Fiuczynski’s finely threaded guitar runs.

TrackList: Waiting Is Forbidden; Abhogi; Stay; We’ll Make More; Are There Clouds in India?; Lots of Interest; F; Copernicus – 19; Wrathful Wisdom; Ballad for Troubled Times; Majesty of the Blues

—Doug Simpson




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