Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Gamak, Ronnie Scott’s, London – review

Rudresh Mahanthappa’s quartet Gamak meld the scales, microtones and compound time signatures of Asia with the rhythmic grit and deconstructed Americana of downtown New York. Steve Coleman’s mind-boggling intricacies and the sultry raga-based speed-freakery of John McLaughlin’s Shakti are immediate points of reference. But alto saxophonist Mahanthappa’s hard-edged tone and David Fiuczynski’s extraordinary sonic range on twin-necked guitar deliver a much tougher stance and far broader horizons.

For two intense, precisely timed sets, raw riffs and moody themes, quarter-note lines and microtonal ragas came with funky rhythms and pedal-steel whines, sitar-like shimmers and full-metal thrash. Mahanthappa’s compositions dart off at angles, juxtapose genres and juggle tempos in fiendishly complex time. Sensuous Asiatic themes morphed to harsh unison riffs and intricate sax and guitar leads segued into out-of-tempo reveries at the splash of a cymbal.

The rhythm section, with François Moutin on double bass and Dan Weiss on drums, followed every nuance without loss of flow, fuelling both sets with closely controlled, nervous energy. And individually, they produced highlights to match the front line. Moutin, a master of funky counterpoint and swing, organised fleet-fingered runs and double-stop chords into an attention-holding bass feature, and Weiss’s closely controlled press rolls and inner-rim rattles gave a drum solo climax a fresh lick of paint.

Mahanthappa hit the ground running with a gritty unaccompanied riff, Fiuczynski added scratchy guitar and Weiss beefed up the beats. Moods changed, there were floaty interludes and then sax and guitar danced jubilantly over the shifting structures of “Waiting is Forbidden”, the lead track of their self-titled CD. The south Indian raga-based “Abhogi” followed – hints of Bollywood, mambo and left-leaning funk switching meter and tempo at will – then “Wrathful Wisdom”, whose origins lie in Tibet. It opened as call to prayer, but soon became more secular in tone.

Other references were closer to Mahanthappa’s New Jersey home. “Lots of Interest” referenced the financial crisis and “Stay I” the remnants of an instruction to “Stay In Lane” on the New Jersey Turnpike. The evening ended with the bucolic and sad “Ballad for Troubled Times”. It’s on the original CD, but here was a beautifully understated and moving dedication to the civilian population of Syria.

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