Alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa is in a deep purple patch of late. With a range of different ensembles to articulate different elements of his music, he’s been doing some of his best work in small, punch groups like those heard on last year’s Samdhi and here on Gamak. In the company of guitarist David “Fuze” Fiuczynski (who, along with Mahanthappa, plays with Jack DeJohnette), bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, Mahanthappa has assembled a quartet that is truly righteous in its distillation of funk, Indian music and limber swing.
It’s hard-hitting stuff, overflowing with the immensities of the leader’s rhythmic imagination from the jittery opening notes of “Waiting is Forbidden.” While these guys have certainly studied “fusion” records of the past (hell, Fuze plays a double-neck for goodness’ sake), this music can’t be summed up by thinking of it as an electricified Shakti or any such perfunctory reference. Rooted in the saxophonist and guitarist’s collaboration, Gamak is really devoted not to the exploration of any particular traditional form so much as it seeks to structure group improv around a succession of continual rhythmic and tonal mutations. With that, the band is just as likely to tumble collectively into a limpid area (cooling down for a few seconds) or a lushly chordal thicket, as they are to deal out dirty grooves. Regardless of the idiom at any moment, though, the music is always burbling with such liveliness and activity that you get the feeling that practically anything could happen.
I admit that I have a long-time fondness for Fuze, who uses twang bar, slide, and fretless guitar to create a kind of singularly spasmodic but technically assured guitar. A student of funk, he gets his “chank” on in a serious way here, working his way through high-strung tonal twang and really imaginative tone-bending that fits Mahanthappa’s compositions to a tee. Listen, for example, to the slack-key via Carnatic feel of “Abhogi.” It’s filled with bright and fruity lyricism from sax and guitar, but the key to its success is the effervescent Moutin/Weiss exchanges that will knock you out before the gorgeous wave of delay-drenched guitar breaks over you. Through most of these tunes, Mahanthappa is so adept at altering his tone, flipping a note’s articulation around, squeezing or elongating it, that the subtlest inflection can carry a lot of weight in these visceral tunes. He does this so crisply in the wafting, balladic “Are There Clouds in India?,” whose harmonic tensions convey a sense of lost-ness or drift. It’s bracing to hear him refine this approach album by album.
As is Mahanthappa’s wont sometimes, Gamak is filled with miniatures like “Stay I” (where the band jams on small rhythmic ideas or textural ones) that add variety to the whole. A tightly paced hour, there certainly is a considerable range of expression here (note the glorious alto cadenza to “Ballad for Troubled Times”). But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t compelled most by the more bumpnoxious tunes: the funky “Wrathful Wisdom,” the rotund walking bass groove that meets the fizzy lines of “We’ll Make More,” the headlong swing of “Copernicus – 19,” or the punchy, rocking “Majesty of the Blues” that closes the album. Terrific stuff that you want to spin again the moment it’s done, and no doubt a band that will melt you in a live setting.