Just a few weeks back I hastily surmised that Joe Lovano’s latest release might already have sewn up Best of 2013 honors. With much intended hyperbole, I suggested that others might as well just stop playing. Of course, none of us really wants that. A variety of voices is what it’s all about, after all. And one of the biggest, most invigorating voices in jazz today belongs to saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, who himself just put out a new album, Gamak. And this—no, really—this is the album of the year! (Hey, it’s Grammys weekend—what do you expect?!)
Mahanthappa’s music, as I’m sure most readers of this blog well know, is a highly energized one, becoming almost frantic at times (though never out of control) as the saxophonist tangles with his chosen group of musicians—often those with feet and instrument cases planted in various musical genres, allowing Mahanthappa to explore the classical Indian music of his heritage along with jazz, rock and other wild, modern sounds. Joining Mahanthappa for Gamak (a word, according to the saxophonist, derived “from the South Indian term for melodic ornamentation ‘gamaka’” and that serves, apparently, as both album title and group name; his 2011 title Samdhi likewise fulfilled this dual purpose) are musicians he’s played with in other contexts. Drummer Dan Weiss and bassist François Moutin are part of the quartet last heard on the saxophonist’s 2006 album Codebook. Weiss is also part of the saxophonist’s Indo-Pak Coalition, and Moutin played on the 2010 Mahanthappa/Bucky Green Apex album. Guitarist David Fiuczynski appeared with Mahanthappa regularly last year as part of The Jack DeJohnette Group. That Group, in fact, made a stop in Cleveland as part of the Tri-C JazzFest, albeit without the services of Mr. Mahanthappa.
Fiuczynski is a key to the success of this latest release. That a guitarist holds this favored position on a Mahanthappa record should be of no surprise to his fans—for me, at least, a good deal of the excitement over a forthcoming Mahanthappa album comes from anticipating his new guitarist foil. In guitarists like Rez Abbasi and David Gilmore (and, now, Fiuczynski), Mahanthappa has found energetic partners who can expertly run with him along the ragged line of his Indo-fusion music. The electric guitar, in fact, seems uniquely qualified for this role–not only can it keep pace with the power of the saxophonist’s own playing, but it also can (at least in the hands of these chosen musicians) effortlessly, organically move in and out of the various cultural and sonic spaces that the saxophonist likewise traces and that this music demands. Fiuczynski aptly fits the bill. In one moment his electric guitar might release the warbling lines of traditional Indian or other Asian musics, the next it’s spanking out crunching rock chords that segue into blistering metal solos or slack-key surf-music vibes. “Lots Of Interest,” as its title might indicate, provides a perfect example. Mahanthappa and Fiuczynski both run the musical gamut herein, and it’s interesting to note how their playing colors Moutin’s acoustic bass solo, lending it Asian shadows it might not cast in some other setting.
From the opening, funk-boogie alarm of “Waiting Is Forbidden,” Gamak fires a sparkling mesh of musical possibility, laying out swaths of Indian, jazz, rock and funk music as if they are inseparable parts of the same, universal music. This is never an esoteric exercise, but more full-blooded sport, a heated exchange that, as the abrupt ending to the closer, “Majesty of the Blues,” demonstrates, can only be silenced by pulling the plug. Why you would ever want to do such a thing remains unanswered.