The idea of hybridity has been central to the music of alto saxophonist/composer Rudresh Mahanthappa throughout his career. Most prominent, of course, has been his highly original fusion of east and west, jazz mixed with the sounds of his Indian heritage. But that’s too easy and linear a depiction of this open-eared and inventive composer, who has absorbed an enormous variety of music into his thinking and amalgamated it into a singular vision.
On his new ACT release, Gamak (available Jan. 29), Mahanthappa continues that multi-directional evolution with a bold, striking set of music that melds leading-edge jazz with innovative reinterpretations of traditional Indian and Middle Eastern approaches, shot through with an electric jolt of prog-rock complexity. Mahanthappa’s distinctly personal sound hybridizes progressive jazz and South Indian classical music in a fluid and forward-looking form that reflects the composer’s own experience growing up a second-generation Indian-American. Just as his personal experience is never wholly lived on one side of the hyphenate or the other, his music speaks in a voice dedicated to forging a new path forward.
Gamak, Mahanthappa’s 13th album as leader or co-leader, marks the debut of a new band that is both a reprise and a reinvention. The album reunites the saxophonist with bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, the rhythm section from his long-running quartet, which was last recorded for the 2006 album, Codebook. But the group takes on a radically different sound with the addition of David “Fuze” Fiuczynski, a master of microtonal guitar whose eclectic virtuosity offered Mahanthappa a vast new territory to explore.
“Dave has checked out so much music,”Mahanthappa says of Fiuczynski in a news release. “A lot of eastern music, whether it’s Chinese or Indian or Arabic, and a lot of 20th and 21st century classical music. Not to mention that he has this rock/punk aesthetic that’s evident in his band the Screaming Headless Torsos. And Dan and Francois come from a really wide perspective as well. Dan is just as much into Rush as he is Max Roach or Zakir Hussain. So I knew those guys were going to really bring this stuff to life.”
The name Gamak is derived from the word for ornamentation in Indian classical music, an element that is far more central to that culture than the English word implies. “In South Indian music particularly,” Mahanthappa explains, “melodic ornamentation isn’t random. It’s very specific and stylized and studied.” As for the word’s relevance to his current ensemble he says, “In recontextualizing these things, Gamak can refer to any sort of melodic ornamentation. It’s as applicable to Indian classical music as it is to R&B singers riffing or anything in between.”