Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Aakash Mittal Reinvents Nocturnal Indian Sounds on His Magical New Trio Album

Musicians tend to be night creatures, and nobody knows that better than alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal. His new album Nocturne – streaming at Bandcamp – is a magical, evocative suite celebrating afterdark sounds, particularly several styles native to Kolkata, where he pursued an intensive study of Indian music and had many epiphanies along the way. It was a lot of fun watching him work up the material on the album in concert in venues across New York prior to the lockdown.

Mittal’s Awaz Trio take their name from the Hindi word which, depending on context, can mean sound, noise, or voice. Mittal is a connoisseur of all three. From Coltrane to Rudresh Mahanthappa, scores of reed players have used Indian music as a springboard for jazz, but Mittal’s alternately bright and mysterious sound is uniquely his own, in many ways closer to the otherworldly sources of the themes he draws on here.

The first sound on the album is Mittal’s Kolkata teacher Prattyush Banerjee urging him to keep his ears open. Mittal’s oboe-like, microtonal melismas over Rajna Swaminathan’s casually bounding mrudangam rhythm will give you goosebumps. He follows with the first nocturne and its contrasts between the insistence of Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki against his own wafting, fluttering atmospherics and semiquavers.

Mittal bookends a tantalizingly modal miniature, Street Music, with samples of Kolkata percussionists building a qawwali-like groove on the street outside a temple of Kali. Nocturne II draws on the restless Raga Marwa, an evening piece: the group circle through simple, clustering cell-like phrases, Mittal joining the interweave with gently assertive riffage, then hovering and bounding overhead. Those who don’t know the raga may not catch the Indian vernacular. Okazaki’s variations on what’s essentially a catchy, trickily syncopated bassline are a tasty touch, as is Mittal’s choice to go the mysterious route afterward.

Mittal loves rarely-played late-night and wee-hours ragas, which have some of the most delicious tonalities in the raga cycle, evidenced by the third nocturne, which draws on Raga Bageshri. The dichotomy is much the same as the first nocturne; perhaps ironically, it’s more vampy but also more lively. The group’s build to a Morricone-esque taxi drive through a maze of Kolkata backstreets of the mind is irresistible.

A raucous found-sound street scene introduces the album’s acerbically gorgeous fourth nocturne, a mini-suite inspired by Raga Yaman, a piece for sundown. Mittal’s airy, microtone-infused lines over Okazaki’s spare, bristling incisions, a couple of bracing crescendos and persistent modal eeriness scream calmly for the repeat button.

The well-known Raga Jinjoti serves as the catalyst for the amiable final nocturne, a funky romp that’s the closest thing to straight-up postbop here, although once again, Mittal works the rhythmic/misterioso dialectic for all it’s worth.

The final street scene has a great backstory. Mittal’s Kolkata neighbor was a security guard who had plenty of time to practice his homemade shennai oboe, made out of “PVC pipe with drilled finger holes, utilized a metal cup as the bell, and was played with a double reed. The timbre was raw, buzzy and completely outside of any tuning system. His playing was a reminder to me that music and creativity do not need to be bound by rules: they are innate to our spirit as humans,” Mittal explains in his liner notes. His shift between calmly pulsing energy, aching modalities and a coy deviation at the end of the tune perfectly summarize his individualistic, boundary-defying, resolutely melodic approach, Assuming that best-of-2021 jazz album polls are still happening at the end of the year, it’s a good bet we’ll see this one on a bunch of them.

September 14, 2021 Posted by | indian music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rivetingly Fun Set by Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio Saturday Night in Brooklyn

Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.

Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.

The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.

Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.

A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.

Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”

December 20, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment