Right about a year and a half ago, jam band extraordinaire Garaj Mahal wowed us with their nimble, creative offering w00t, which made 2008's Best Of" list of fusion records, and contained a killer track I thought topped all other songs in the fusion jazz category. Now in their tenth year of existence, this quartet of jazz-rock-world music maestros recently followed up with another CD More Mr. Nice Guy (on sale since March 9), an album that continues with their homegrown recipe of virtuosic but groove-based amalgamations of funk, jazz and rock with exotic Eastern garnishments. This is one of the few band signatures that expand possibilities rather than limit them, and they continue exploiting those possibilities on for their latest CD.
However, if Garaj Mahal wasn't already loaded enough, they added a new weapon since their last album. Founding drummer Alan Hertz departed, making way for Sean The Rick" Rickman. Like Hertz before him, Rickman is plenty adept at weird time signatures and tempo quicksilver change-ups that are often prescribed by this band, but this drummer brings a whole new dimension previously foreign to this band: vocals, which we'll get into in a bit.
The bread and butter of this band remains at its core being about the rare groove, exotic accoutrements and sophisticated harmonic advancement all rolled up into one. Eckhardt's Witch Doctor" (see video of live performance below) which begins the album, in fact, seems almost like a calling card to that signature sound. Using not one but two electric basses, he spins an American funk groove supplemented by African rhythms and Indian chordal voicings. What sounds much like a hybrid of an acoustic guitar an electric sitar is in reality a Moog guitar (more on this later). Haque later gets a jazzy sound from it on his lead part, and Levy comes next with a feisty Fender Rhodes solo. Eckhardt's other contribution, Chester The Pester" has so many harmonies and counter harmonies and even polyrhythms, and yet, it's a solid state, rumbling vibe.
Levy puts in a couple of songs, plus the electronica into piece Faster Than The Speed Of Time," which precedes his Tachyonics," which is proof that even taxing fusion songs can take on a soulful character. His acoustic piano in the middle of the song is all elegant jazz, and Eckhardt's sublime bass solo that follows sways the song right back into a tight groove. Alison's Pony" is even more melodious, rollicks at a relaxed pace and contains more thoughtful piano work from its composer.
Haque is a musician with one of the largest comfort zones of any guitarist around, but that never stops him from trying to challenge himself by stepping outside of it. For The Long Form," he combines the crunchy blues rock that you find in songs like Led Zeppelin's Black Dog" with the extended form of the Indian composition style. Frankly Frankie Ford" is a deliberately Americana-styled song, incorporating elements of bluegrass, country and folk into fusion, and affords Haque to even break out a banjo for the occasion.
Now, about those vocals. Such a talented instrumental group as G.M. needs nobody singing over their music, and it risks disturbing the overall vibe of the album. For that reason, I usually hate it when these kind of bands start to do that. But taken on their own terms, Rickman's two contributions, Today" and What My Friends Say" aren't bad at all, actually.The Rick, who also handles all background vocals, too, is a rather credible singer. The former song is crisp, straight ahead rocker, and Haque's choice of acoustic guitar for his solo shouldn't have worked, but it does. What My Friends Say" is a more deviating tune with a real funky chorus and Levy's Moog jousting against Haque's similar sounding wah-wahing guitar. So props to the band for creatively meshing their strengths into even more-or-less radio friendly songs.
In comparing More Mr. Nice Guy with w00t, I can think of three songs on the earlier record that I like more than any tracks on the new one, but Nice Guy lacks any clunkers and the band is getting very consistent, which is a real accomplishment since they are often taking chances and pushing envelopes. And as long as the band gets to do their thing, it won't hurt at all for Mr. Rickman to step up to a mike and sing once in while.
More Mr. Nice Guy dropped on March 9, through Owl Studios. Visit Garaj Mahal's website here.
Although the tracks are readily available to purchase from iTunes, this isn't really a proper Garaj Mahal album; it's intended to demonstrate the versatility and technological advances of Moog's new Moog Guitar. But this CD is awfully developed and downright entertaining for a demo record. Through twelve tracks, Haque, often backed by his Garaj Mahal band, run through a variet of styles, from electronica ("DC Swing" Bobolink"), to classical ("Largo From Vivaldi's Concerto in D, RV 234") to straight jazz ("Round Midnight") and even several tunes that would fit comfortably in a proper G.M. album ("Never Give Up," Make A Hippy Happy," and Of A Simple Mind"). So, for Garaj Mahalics, it's a bonafide treat, because neither Haque nor the group seem like they are giving the half-hearted effort they could have been easily excused for giving.
In the CD sleeve are extensive tech notes" written by Haque and Levy for each of the tracks, but for those less geek inclined, there's also a fairly brief video included where Haque does a admirable job showing off some of the slick features of this guitar without going so far over everyone's heads: