Garaj Mahal, The Cabooze, Minneapolis, MN, 3/23
On Saturday, March 23rd, Garaj Mahal brought their eclectic brand of jazz-rock to the Great White North, continuing their spring tour with a brief swing through the Midwest. The night drew a good crowd to the Cabooze, a friendly live music venue located in the heart of Minneapolis’ west bank, an interesting section of town full of bars, clubs and ethnic Ethiopian and Indian resteraunts and stores.
Garaj Mahal, although a newer band on the jam scene, is comprised of members who are no strangers to the stage. Kai Eckhardt on bass and Fareed Haque on guitar are long-standing members of the jazz community, having played with John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Bill Evans and Bela Fleck (Kai) and Nigel Kennedy, Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis and Sting (Fareed). Eric Levy on keys is a veteran of several rock/jazz ensembles, most recently MVP (formerly Swimmer), a Chicago based band. And Alan Hertz on drums is Garaj Mahal’s main connection to the jam scene, having been the thunder behind the now defunct KVHW, a bay area unit comprised of Steve Kimock, Bobby Vega, and Frank Zappa alumnus Ray White.
Together the unit has produced a driving jazz-rock sound that at times borders on jazz-fusion and straight ahead rock and funk. The band has a quirky sense of humor and strives to maintain strong dance sensibilities while exploring the most complex jazz theories. This night in Minneapolis, the band took on all aspects of their repertoire and even included a bit of bluegrass, a new realm of music they have not explored too much as a unit.
Live, Garaj Mahal works more in the traditional jazz sense, where a theme-melody is developed, then each member takes turns with the lead, exploring the theme in their own ways while the rest of the band follows behind. Although there seem to be less group-oriented jams in their playing, they definitely have a way of playing off of each others leads, as one member may find an interesting take on the theme and the others will take off in a similar direction.
The show started a bit tentatively with “Jan Jan”, a Miles Davis composition, and the band used the piece to find their stage legs for the night. The song developed slowly as the band became accustomed to the atmosphere of the Cabooze and the sound crew worked to balance the output from the stage in the oddly shaped room. The song featured a few nice solos by Fareed and Eric, but it seemed that Kai’s bass was lost in the room and it wasn’t until two or three songs into the set he could be clearly heard.
“New Meetings” was next, an odd choice for the second song of the night. “Jan Jan” is a very upbeat, danceable song and the crowd has just begun to warm up and find their groove. “New Meetings” though is a song with a 7-count; an odd timing that isn’t too danceable. Although the crowd was a bit thrown off, the song itself was powerful, with the band creating a many layers of sound and distortion over the melody. It wasn’t a song where any one person stood out; rather they worked as one to create a broad palate over the theme melody.
The band then launched into “Be Dope”, one of their original tunes that seems to always be a crowd pleaser. It’s a rich piece, with a very deep groove that sits behind the theme melody developed by Fareed and Eric. Alan Hertz is a monster on the drums, and although his playing was superb throughout the show, it was here where he first began to truly shine. It is this reviewer’s opinion that this young (28) drummer may be one of the best drummers playing these days. He has a lot of time ahead of him too, so it seems that he’ll only improve.
“Be Dope” was where the band really took off, and brought the crowd to the front of the stage for some serious dancing. Some lightning quick leads by Eric Levy accentuated their high tempo groove. Levy was the band member, who, along with Mr. Hertz, shined the most on this night, as he used his wide array of keyboard effects to the best of his ability, drawing sounds that range from electronic keyboards, piano, distorted electric guitar to a funky moog.
“Mondo Garaj” was up next, another staple of the Garaj repertoire, but this version didn’t seem to push the envelope as far as past versions I’ve heard. Kai was the driving force behind this number and really was the highlight within the piece. It’s a fun song, but on this night didn’t seem to develop as fully as it could have.
The next two songs were quite possibly the highlight of the night for me, beginning with one of the most beautiful versions of “Madagascar” I’ve ever heard. Again, Eric Levy stood out as he approached the song with a wonderfully classical ear, layering the melody of the song over and over again to a climax before handing the lead off to Fareed. Mr. Haque stepped forward and continued the theme Eric had developed, and the two then joined forces to develop the melody in tandem.
Next up was “Stoked on Rasaki”, a song the band developed last fall when they were joined by the guest percussionist Rasaki. It’s a high-energy song that seems to fall into a Santana-esque vein. This version was mighty, as Hertz drove the band with fury from his kit, and Fareed took his most spirited leads of the night. He was smooth yet moved like lightning with his signature rapid-fire technique. The song had the crowd worked into a frenzy, and if there were any doubters about Garaj Mahal in the room, I think they’re minds may have been changed during this number.
The band was ready to take a break before a second set and Kai announced they were going to rest, only to realize that there were only about 45 min. left in their time onstage. Minnesota law requires bars to close at one, and the rule prevented a long two-set show we were all hoping for.
Instead, the band launched into their bluegrass take on the Prince song “Kiss.” The song itself displays Garaj Mahal’s quirky sense of humor, but on this night it was even more poignant given that they were playing in Prince’s hometown. Next came “Semos”, a new Kai Eckhardt composition. The piece is one that is driven by a main riff, one that sounds as if it’s made for a video game, before launching into a complex and rich jazz melody. It moves so fast and is so complex, that even the most experience music listener may take a few minutes (or many more) to realize what the theme is actually saying. “Semos” is a prime example of how truly versed in jazz Garaj Mahal is, and if they want to be, can certainly play “thinking mans music.” The song also lends itself to their sense of humor, as Kai explained to me after the show that the song is named and themed after a bit character named “Semos” in the remake of Planet of the Apes, played by a chimpanzee. Eric Levy again was the standout during this piece, taking a long extended solo that seemed to explore a number of different themes before climaxing and returning to the main complex phrase of the song. It was simply amazing. Again, Levy and Hertz were the most consistent players during the evening, but it was Eric who was really pushing the envelope all night.
The band closed with their staple “Poodle Factory”, another example of their sense of humor (“Have you ever seen a poodle bark like this?/ bark, bark, barkbarkbark/ take it to the park and let it bark!”). Unfortunately 1 a.m. was already on us and the song had to stop short of where it has gone on previous nights, and I think the band never really gave it too much of an attempt on this night.
There was no encore due to the time constraints, and although satisfied, I think many in the crowd walked away yearning for more.