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When alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was considered a "rising star" among jazz bookers and critics, and not quite a full-blown headliner, he led a very good quartet. It featured pianist Vijay Iyer before he, too, found himself on magazine covers; its engine was propelled by a classic combination of double bass and drums. Since the last quartet record in 2006, Mahanthappa has toured with a lot of different bands: They have names like the Dakshina Ensemble, and the Indo-Pak Coalition, and Samdhi, and Apex, and the Jack DeJohnette Group. All of those experiences seem to be stuffed into his new quartet album, Gamak.
It's a somewhat different quartet. Filling the piano chair is guitarist Dave Fiuczynski, a colleague from Jack DeJohnette's band who's also done deep studies of non-Western systems; he once founded a band called Screaming Headless Torsos, if that tells you anything. But it also returns Francois Moutin (acoustic bass) and Dan Weiss (drums) from the previous band, and as dynamic as they get, the foundations and sonorities they generate are of anchoring comfort, especially in music as complex as this. The sum effect is of surfing on an information overload without drowning in it.
If you think about it from a remove, you can hear a lot of Gamak in the improvised music of some 40 to 50 years ago. John Coltrane was accommodating South Asian modes and scales within a virtuosic style that was uniquely his own. Miles Davis was finding places for rock-influenced electric guitarists like John McLaughlin in his bands and recordings. And the impact of composer-improvisers like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler spurred many to rethink the ways they wrote music and blew over it.
The personal integration of Indian music, the "three seconds and you know who's playing" saxophone, the double-necked guitar and all that it implies, the homegrown approaches to composition: That's all in this record. But that history isn't really what you think of here, and Mahanthappa got to this point through his own 21st-century pathways anyway. There's too much immediate impact, too much that feels like the proggy present.
At the end of the first track, "Waiting Is Forbidden," the microphone picks up a bit of studio chatter from Mahanthappa. He knows the band has hit a sweet spot; a convergence of redline intensity, driving funk and a distinct way of expressing a blues inflection. "That was pretty smokin'," he says. "Let's listen to it."