Fusion music, that b-word child of Jazz and rock and whatever else was in the hamper, depending on the artist, was always an also-ran. Not entirely sure why: certainly the early practitioners had success coming up with something diverting (note Miles Davis' BITCHES BREW, The Fourth Way's WERWOLF, Herbie Hancock's CROSSINGS, Pat Martino's JOYOUS LAKE, The Mahavishnu Orchestra's BIRDS OF FIRE)... but by the mid-1970s the potentially loose-goose mix seemed to solidify into yet another set of 'criteria.' See, for example, Brand X or Tribal Tech. And a too-tight set of 'criteria' can kill a genre, especially a new one. Luckily, the continuing development of the jam-band ethic is helping bring fusion some new listeners, a tack John Scofield has been doing well with.
Garaj Mahal have a toe in the 'jam' pool (largely evident in Alan Hertz' 4-on-the-floor drumming, the Medeski, Martin & Wood-via Jimmy Smith organ parts, and the occasional drone-based piece) but these guys can all play their butts off, they have an excellent grasp of songwriting dynamics, and they also know when to stop soloing. A certain knowedge of the form is also evident in, among other places, the title tune. Furiously intricate like the early 1980s New York Knicks' defense, "Mondo Garaj" has Hertz using a chalk and a squeaky blackboard for a percussion instrument (?! -- or maybe its an old Etch-A-Sketch) over a Gordian-knot bass riff. Kai Eckhardt's tone here is a few notches higher than, say, the much-missed Jaco's or Stanley Clarke's, and keys whiz Eric Levy bounces between synth and e-piano with a delightful mischief. Fareed Haque's guitars do not shine here, but only because there's so much else going on. Later on "Hindi Gumbo," he is allowed to come into his own: we begin with synthesized tonsils and a head-shaking funk riff, Levy's hot Hammond and, surprise, Haque switching between guitar and sitar. Funny how such a minor addition appears to make all the difference in freshness. And no, it ain't no drone instrument. Haque does trance out on dobro and electric on the slow-burning "Junckt," however, in very convincing fashion, wherein Hertz loosens up and rides/floats the cymbals with no small authority.
Not everything on this CD is of a piece with this carefully adventurous air: "Bajo" works off, off all things, an old Badfinger chord change and doesn't get very far because it wasn't designed to. But "Poodle Factory" has a marvelous Zappa-like humor (recall his "Dirty Love") and "Beware My Ethnic Heart" mixes a 'sitar guitar' along with Haque's other favorite axes over a shuffling Phish-like beat. Quite a bit of blindingly fast picking too, but not faster than anybody in the band can think.
A fine long-player overall, lots of surprises, and you'll once again be able to listen to your Brand X albums without wincing.
by Ken Egbert
New Sounds - CD Reviews