Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

March 20, 2013


Multi faceted and technically brilliant "Gamak" represents a sometimes demanding listen, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one.

Rudresh Mahanthappa


(ACT Music + Vision ACT 9537-2)

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was born in the US to Indian parents and has enjoyed a prolific career since making his recorded début as a leader in 1994. “Gamak” represents his thirteenth release as leader or co-leader and represents his second album for the Munich based label ACT following 2011’s “Samdhi”.

“Samdhi” represented Mahanthappa’s first serious attempt to explore his Indian heritage but the album also contained many of the other disparate elements of his musical DNA - bebop, hip hop, 80’s fusion, M Base and much more. As Mahanthappa explained at the time of “Samdhi” everything is up for grabs “From Gregorian Chant to Lady Gaga”. In his notes for “Gamak” he states that his music incorporates “Western forms of jazz, progressive rock, heavy metal, country, American folk go-go and ambient while simultaneously engaging the rich traditions of Indian, Chinese, African and Indonesian music”. It’s pretty much a case of “no stone left unturned” and the music is correspondingly busy, full of subtle rhythmic and melodic twists that suggest that Mahanthappa shares his one time collaborator Vijay Iyer’s fascination for mathematics and numerical patterns, his music is certainly of equal complexity to that of the increasingly celebrated pianist’s.

The title “Gamak” comes from the South Indian word “gamaka”, a term relating to a process of melodic ornamentation. The album features an entirely different line up to “Samdhi” as Mahanthappa re-unites with his two long running colleagues Francois Moutin (acoustic bass) and Dan Weiss (drums) who both appeared on his 2006 offering “Codebook”. The “wild card” is the highly individual guitar stylist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, leader of the rock band Screaming Headless Torsos and something of a microtonal specialist who has explored the subtleties of Chinese, Indian and Arabic music albeit with a sense of real rock/punk power. Mahanthappa and “Fuze” first worked together in drummer Jack DeJohnette’s band and their playing dovetails brilliantly on Mahanthappa’s often challenging material, much of it written specifically with the guitarist in mind.

The album’s eleven pieces range from large scale compositions to fleeting vignettes beginning with the near nine minute “Waiting Is Forbidden” which opens with a repeated salvo of notes from Mahanthappa, the saxophonist later joined by Fuze’s idiosyncratic chording and the super agile rhythms of Moutin and Weiss to create a wiry, tensile web of sound with its roots in both vintage prog rock and modern math rock -  with Mahanthappa’s horn also bringing a healthy dose of jazz, particularly on a solo which takes flight above the restless rhythmic churning of his colleagues. Fuze’s solo is typically idiosyncratic, his unusual tunings inviting comparisons with both Indian and Chinese music as previously alluded to but with contemporary electronic effects also added to the equation. This is restless, complex music that thrills with its constant evolution. Given my prog rock background and continued love of experimental music it’s a sound that I’m immediately drawn to, although I can readily appreciate that some listeners may find Mahanthappa’s music too busy and overly bombastic.

The seven minute plus “Aboghi” is based on an Indian raga - “one of those rare ragas that’s treated the same in both North and South India” explains Mahanthappa. Although it’s origins are immediately apparent both through the use of rhythm and Mahanthappa’s alto sound Fuze also brings an element of Americana to the table via his use of slide guitar, but in true Fuze fashion this soon takes on other elements to produce a sound very much his own. Again it’s a thrillingly complex piece with some dazzling exchanges between saxophone and guitar as the rhythm section holds it altogether with consummate skill. There’s plenty of dynamic variation with a more reflective central section developing into a feature for bass and drums on which both Moutin and Weiss excel. 

After these two marathon excursions “Stay I”, at just over two minutes is little more than a sketch, albeit a taut one with Mahanthappa hatching melodic ideas above a richly varied and colourful rhythmic undertow with distinctive contributions from both Moutin and Weiss. Fuze’s role is essentially textural. The press release reveals that the title was inspired by damage to a sign on the New Jersey Turnpike where a sign reading “Stay In Line” had been truncated to “Stay I”, a phrase that resonated with Mahanthappa and which almost inevitably found itself being used both as a philosophical statement and as the title of a tune. 

Opening with a burst of Indo style solo alto sax “We’ll Make More” is another tune built on a raga beat cycle and even features Fuze approximating the sound of a sitar on the intro. Elsewhere we hear the now familiar rhythmic intensity and some mind bogglingly tricky unison passages alongside thrilling cameos for bass, sax and guitar. The speed and precision these guys exhibit is almost frightening.

“Are There Clouds In India?” is a reprise of a piece that Mahanthappa originally recorded for his 2002 album “Black Water”. Here it represents a pause for breath, balladic and wistful, and a welcome palette cleanser following the intensity of much of the previous four tracks. 

Like the earlier “Stay I” “Lots Of Interest” initially sounds as if it may have been influenced at least in part by the music of Ornette Coleman. It’s a feeling that lingers until Fuze’s brilliant rock influenced solo takes it somewhere else leading to a bravura Weiss drum feature played above chunky, staccato riffs. It’s thrilling and visceral stuff.

At this point Mahanthappa throws in another couple of miniatures. “F” is essentially a bass feature for the consistently excellent Moutin, “Copernicus - 19” a brief but sparky and satisfying thrash that grows out of vigorous dialogue between Weiss and Mahanthappa.

Effectively “Copernicus” is a curtain raiser for “Wrathful Wisdom”, a title referring to a concept of Buddhist philosophy. The piece evokes not only Indian music but also a kind of odd angled funk plus even a hint of the blues in Fuze’s feverish guitar sound. The range of sounds the guitarist generates over the course of the album is astonishing even allowing for Fuze’s use of a double necked guitar (live pictures of the Gamak band have depicted him playing such a beast) and he’s in dazzlingly inventive form throughout, this is a real virtuoso performance. Fuze is the perfect foil for Mahanthappa’s dry, biting, caustic alto and the supremely adaptable Moutin and Weiss are the perfect rhythm section, able to handle the challenges Mahanhappa throws at them with ease. It comes as no surprise to learn that Weiss is also an acknowledged tabla master as well as a brilliant kit drummer and he brings some of this specialist knowledge to the conventional drum kit here.

The aptly titled “Ballad For Troubled Times” begins with a brilliant opening solo sax cadenza and in the context of this album represents a genuine ballad albeit a somewhat abstract one. Fuze reveals a more sensitive side of his playing in his exchanges with Mahanthappa but is still very much himself while Weiss’ percussive commentary is consistently interesting. It’s a haunting mix that represents the calm before the storm that is the closing “Majesty Of The Blues”.

Don’t let the title fool you, “The Majesty…” is a skronking screamer of a tune that the quartet invest with an almost punk like energy. British listeners are referred to Acoustic Ladyland, Led Bib etc. It’s all over in less than two minutes but I can envision it being readily extended in live performance and becoming a great set closer and crowd favourite.

“Gamak” represents further progress in Mahanthappa’s mission to fuse the music of East and West in a singular personalised vision. Building on the success of “Samdhi” this is an even more distinctive piece of work with Fuze’s contribution surpassing even that of David Gilmore who so impressed on guitar on the last album. Fuze is one of those musicians who I’ve been aware of for some time without necessarily hearing much of his output. His playing is a revelation here and helps to take Mahanthappa’s music to new heights. I’ve not heard anywhere near the whole of Mahanthappa’s back catalogue but I’d wager that this latest album is a good candidate for the award of his best yet. Multi faceted and technically brilliant “Gamak” represents a sometimes demanding listen, but ultimately an extremely rewarding one. 

blog comments powered by Disqus