A Christmastime performance by Garaj Mahal at Cosmic Charlie's presented the celebrated jam band with complementary surroundings.
Students at the University of Kentucky were winding up finals for the fall semester and were filing into the Woodland Avenue music club to hear the mighty Mahal indulge in jazz-, rock- and funk-friendly groove tunes. Holiday time, it seemed, had arrived.
Now Garaj Mahal is back with another gig in an altogether different environment. Friday night's show is at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, which caters more to a sit-down listening environment than a dance-happy jam setting. If such a venue change seems at all unexpected, rest easy. It's all part of the double life that Garaj Mahal loves to lead.
"We have a diverse audience," said Garaj Mahal guitarist Fareed Haque, who remains nearly as active with projects outside of the band as he does in his role as one of the group's most versed soloists. "So one of the things we try to do in each city we play is cultivate a balance between sit-down-and-listen venues and clubs where younger people can come and dance. That's a big part of our musical culture and something that seems to be working out very well for us."
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The "sit-down" show doesn't mean Garaj Mahal is shutting out the jam-band contingency. It just implies that the set list might weigh in with more of its jazzier, world music-prevalent compositions than it would in a club setting, where the jams and grooves rule the evening.
For fans of Haque's innovative guitar work, such a performance setting is a bonus — especially since two new Garaj Mahal albums feature a bounty of new music that draws from a diverse palette of guitar colors, some of which explore dramatic new instrumental terrain.
The first recording, More Mr. Nice Guy, centers around a repertoire that works generously off Haque and keyboardist Eric Levy (a former music student of Haque's) and the foundation of onetime John McLaughlin bassist Kai Eckhardt and the band's newest member, Sean "The Rick" Rickman. The music shifts from the rubbery Eastern grooves and boppish guitar chatter of Witch Doctor to the almost elegiac piano/guitar lyricism of Alison's Pony.
"Working so closely with Eric, I think, is just an inherent part of the Garaj Mahal sound. We've been working together for so long. I like to say Eric used to be my student. Now I'm his student. So we really have a connection. We have created a nice context for listening to each other and creating counterpoint."
The second new Garaj Mahal album is Discovery, which enforces the teacher/student role-reversal that Haque speaks of. The record is essentially a platform for Haque's explorations on the Moog guitar. The guitar variant allows the music to use new sounds, tones and levels of sustained sound through control of string vibration. Discovery was co-produced by Levy, who complements the album's vast repertoire — electronica-based groove tunes, a chiming version of Vivaldi's Largo and a playful variation on Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight — on the more established, decades-old Moog synthesizer.
"One of the things Moog has always stood by is the idea that it is the musicians' control over the parameters that create magic. There are synthesizers that do everything for you. But you're never in the driver's seat in those cases. With the Moog guitar, there are parameters you can control. If you don't control them, it just sounds like a messy guitar. But if you do control them, more and more possibilities emerge to explore."
Haque already has formed a new trio called Math Games that will be devoted exclusively to music for the Moog guitar. Add that to his Garaj Mahal duties, his music with the world-music fusion band The Flat Earth Ensemble, his teaching and even work on classical transcriptions and projects, and you have an artist with a seemingly dizzying artistic agenda.
Haque doesn't see his musical life that way, though. He sees little by way of boundaries between musical territories that many might view as disparate.
"I view all music in sort of the same way," Haque said. "There is a lot of similarity in the subtleties of phrasing, from the blues to African music to Indian and classical music. I don't mean to sound arrogant in the least. But with all the humility I can muster, I don't really notice that many differences in music.
"I think people, especially in the business world, have created more of a distinction between styles than is necessary. But for me, it's not really that difficult to play a blues tune, then a rock tune, then a funk tune and then maybe a Bach fugue. It's not that different. It may sound different. You just have to pay attention to what counts. And what counts is groove, counterpoint and, of course, the songs."