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03/31/13

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Gamak
ACT Music + Vision

Is there a better rivalry in jazz today than the friendly competition between Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa? For many years they performed as a duo at European festivals, regularly appeared on each other’s records, and were frequently linked and referenced as alter egos. But their joint projects and events began to dwindle significantly about five years ago—around the same time the music of both was mutating steadily in a more melodic and danceable vein, even as they both also frequently invoked the musical forms and traditions of their Indian heritage.

Gamak, recorded about three weeks after Iyer’s highly celebrated Accelerando was released early last year, is an itchy, ambitious, often molten mosaic of styles and cultures. It reunites the rhythm section from Mahanthappa’s longstanding quartet, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, best known from Codebook in 2006, and replaces the fourth member from that disc, Iyer, with the versatile guitar wizard David “Fuze” Fiuczynski. They slay havoc with the risky derring-do of bullfighters. Or, as Mahanthappa says in the liner notes, Gamak “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.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t feel that complicated. The lead song, “Waiting Is Forbidden,” adeptly announces the sort of insistent intensity and pin-wheeling virtuosity that pervades much of the disc. The first half of the tune is anchored by Mahanthappa hammering out variations on a roiling vamp while Fiuczynski plinks in counterpoint. Then a dizzying array of textures and re-tunings ensue, with Fuze moving from rubbery grooves to moonglow parabolas to spangled notes to industrial forward thrusts, before re-engaging Mahanthappa in a whirlwind of Carnatic-prog-bop.

A shared stint in an ensemble with Jack DeJohnette convinced Mahanthappa and Fiuczynski that they wanted to collaborate. Makes sense. Exhilarating throwdowns with fellow alto saxophonists Steve Lehman and Bunky Green, mixed with more Indo-centric jazz projects, have whet Mahanthappa’s appetite for energetic, multi-level fusion, and Fiuczynski’s stylistic breadth and intrepid sense of adventure make him an ideal foil.

If there is a drawback to this approach, it is foretold in the title. Gamak stems from a South Indian term for melodic ornamentation, and there is a sense here of someone trying on a series of dazzling outfits in a changing room. The pieces are dashing and well contoured, and collectively blended together well enough that voracious mutation becomes its own consonant theme. But you have to be in the mood for them.

Originally published in March 2013
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