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Published: 2002/12/28
by Dan Alford

Garaj Mahal, Mercury Lounge, NYC 12/20-21

The Merc has quickly become the home of the jam in New York City. A three hundred person venue, it's not much smaller than the Wetlands, and features an excellent sound system and comfortable vibe, not to mention clear sight lines, and bands seem to love it. SKB, AGP, Topaz, Soulive and a host of others have waded through the crowd to take the stage over the past year, each one doing its best to dismantle the structure and build it again from scratch. AGP enjoyed their first show there so much, they booked it for a sold out late night (doors open at 2 AM) New Year's Eve gig. In fact, the night before Lettuce and Garaj Mahal's two night stand, Ropeadope hosted it's second annual New Music Seminar, a long night of music replete with improvisation and guest appearances.

The opening trio at that show featured Rob Wasserman, Logic, and Billy Martin, and the sounds were as eclectic as the musicians themselves. While Rob did his best to pull it together with by repeating Cissy Strut lines during the first jam, the groove did not coalesce until the second jam when Fareed Haque joined. One particularly fine section had Logic spinning out "I need you so bad," as Fareed led the ensemble out of a low beat bed. As an opening set, it was fine, but too formless to really excite the crowd.

The second set featured a surprise guest, John Scofield, who was filling in for Pat Martino. Joining the guitar super star was the legendary Uri Cane on Rhodes, and Kenny Wollesen and Tony Scherr of the Sex Mob on drums and upright bass respectively. This three song set was a real treat as Sco was uncharacteristically melodic and played a number of pretty passages. The first loose tune opened with a lengthy, fluid passage before the guitarist stepped to the side of the stage to really dig in. Uri Cane quickly took over, unleashing a number of short, very focused ideas. The closing passage was very quiet, almost delicate, and wonderfully rendered. This unit was some strange hybrid of Sco's aggressive neo-funk style, and the quiet, jazz tones he plays at stogy corporate jazz clubs like the Blue Note.

The second tune was entirely unlike anything I've heard from Scofield. A sweeping, achingly beautiful number, it was more like something from Kamp Kimock, with movement after movement swelling to a dramatic climax. To finish up, the quartet set out on a classic Sco-style funk run, the guitarist setting down loops and scratched his strings, bending and twisting his body as he did so. How strange it must be to hear such songs in your head all the time. As he began to play a series of backwards notes, Uri jumped on the lead. Kenny upped the energy with shimmering crashes, and Sco simply lost control, both hands flying over the neck and body of his guitar, tearing it apart with ferocity that seemed to surprise Sco himself. Again, this was playing that I've not seen from Sco before. The movement finally settled into a fun closing section where Uri mimicked Sco perfectly, everyone smiling. The second Sco finished the band intros and walked off the stage, the other half of the S! ex Mob, Steve Bernstein and Briggan Kraus, joined, Bernstein grabbing a mic shouting, "Can I have this mic in the monitor can I have this mic in the monitor can I have this mic in the monitor," and charging into a wild jam. For about ten minutes, he directed his band mates and Uri through the ebbs and flows of his own manic thoughts. When they left the stage, the crowd was dazed, like someone had appeared out of nowhere and slammed em the best kiss ever.

The final jam of the night was an hour and forty-five minute musical onslaught in the form of Project Garaj. Logic, Lamont McCaine (bass, Project Logic), Deantoni Parks (drums, Project Logic), and Casey Benjamin (sax, Project Logic) were joined by Mister Rourke (turntables) and Garaj Mahal members Fareed Haque and Eric Levy for four jams. As has been the case with Project Logic over the past year and a half or so, Casey was in charge, taking a number of lengthy solos and setting the tone. Right from the start the band was on- Logic shines with his own unit, toying with his effects pads more than his tables, or adding a subtle layer of sound by just letting a scratchy record run. Lamont was also there in force, grinding out deep, deep spherical notes that were tinged ever so slightly with metallic edges. Time and again he would rise up below a solo or ambient groove, adding support and pushing the music to the next level. Freed kept his eyes on Casey for most of the night ! and seemed to really enjoy the sax cat's work.

The second jam began with a more complicated rhythm structure over which Casey and Fareed chased a theme. Casey eventually let loose, Fareed gunning after him without hesitation. The tune dropped to a brief moment of Deantoni alone and steady on the beat, the leads creeping in slowly with skwonks and dwoops that eventually transformed into a serious free form jazz wank. The guilty suspects dropped out as incrementally as they had joined, leaving Eric and Deantoni to work out a jazzy passage that led to Birdland. As the jam matured, Eric was grinning from ear to ear. Casey joined, then Fareed started adding licks, Birdland swirling around all the while. Finally Logic began dropping in trumpet lines that were undoubtedly from Bird himself. A fantastic bit of spontaneous orchestration.

Deantoni left the stage as Hope Clayburn (flute, DBB) and Jessica Lurie (sax, Living Daylights) joined. Logic asked if there were any guest drummers in the audience, and as no one responded, the mysterious Dan from Montreal, a fan from the crowd, took percussion duties. He actually played very well, producing a fuller sound than Deantoni, with lots of rides and crashes. The jam was immediately funky with keys and tables and beats all working in unison. Hope followed Jess's first solo, Lamont playing super-bad below, leading to a fast and nimble deluge from Fareed. By this point the whole band was simply killing the groove, pounding it into the ground. At times the movement would drop to just Eric and Lamont, or just the horns, but it always swelled back up to a big noise. At the wildest, most furious moment Mister Rourke spoke for the crowd, cascading "Damn!" over and over.

Eventually Dan from Montreal was supplanted by Joe Russo, and Eric gave over his seat to Marco Benevento. The duo plays often in New York, and has earned serious street credibility. They've also recently been playing with Sam Kininger (Soulive, Lettuce) and Cheme (Robert Walter's) as The Operation All Stars. In fact Cheme also joined in the fray, creating a powerhouse sax section. Solos abounded, and Casey used his to bring the whole band into Michelle for a period. As the music stretched far into the night, Fareed dripping with sweat, bowed to the collective talent assembled on that small stage, allowing the best and brightest in NYC to finish out the set on their own.

The following night, Lettuce headlined at the Merc, but everyone in the crowd was buzzing about the opener, Garaj Mahal. Over the course of two nights, every person I spoke to said he/she was there to see Garaj Mahal, but would stick around for Lettuce. The Left Coast's own groove quartet has made big waves in the past year and recently signed to HGMN's label with plans to release a number of live discs in 2003, including the phenomenal 8-23-02 with Zakir Hussein sitting in for the first set. Their mix of John McLaughlin harmonies (bassist Kai Eckhardt played bass with McLaughlin for a number of years), wild poly-rhythms, Grant Green boogaloo and Zappa-style insanity have made them one of the great innovative bands on the jam/jazz scene today.

The twentieth's set was delayed because drummer Alan Hertz (KVHW) was missing part of his high hat's rig, but Adam Deitch (Scofield, Lettuce) helped out and got the ball rolling. Opening with God Rest Ye Merry Gentle Men was seasonally appropriate, but the tune is a year round staple. Fareed's first solo flew up but landed low, where Eric picked it up and delivered it to Kai. The bassist used his solo time to probe the depths of the song, and resolved his passage with grace. The following 7-Up had a fine, bouncy solo from Eric and a speedy solo from Fareed, Kai swelling up now and then for added effect. The tune closed, but melted into a long intro jam, Kai calling up Hope Clayburn, on sax this time, to join the band for The Chicken. Meanwhile, Fareed, who had broken a string during 7-Up, borrowed one of Krasno's (Soulive, Lettuce) hollow bodied Ibanez guitars, which he played for the rest of the set. Hope grabbed the first solo, nailing it hard and taking it to the bridg! e. Eric followed, pounding the keys and finishing off with nice bit of interaction with Fareed. A great stylistic trait, Garaj Mahall often offers soulful moments where Eric's triumphant keys are decorated with precise, perfect rhythm licks from Fareed. When the guitarist's lead came round, he showed his skills, knocking the tune out of whack, bringing the band along with him, and pull it all back to the song in a matter of seconds. This is music for the serious listener, as well as the dance fiend.

The Shadow spent a long time getting to Fareed's first true solo, and as he spiraled off, so did Alan. Another great strength of the band is Alan Hertz's fantastic sense of rhythm. Many GM songs are in odd times, and Alan seems to thrive in such territory. He is able to keep a solidly grooved rhythm while almost never falling into repetitious patterns- listening to Alan can be as fully engaging as listening to a whole band.

After Semos, the band closed the set with what has become its calling card, Poodle Factory. The song's frantic nature allows the band to cut loose and make use of its collective chops, but at times it just gets too crazed. This version, on the other hand, was truly excellent, if not over long. The central jam had Eric establishing a great high-stepping march, strutting proudly till someone shouted, "Has anyone seen my poodle?" and the song switched gears. Now Fareed was slipping through a slick lead as Kai and Eric accompanied with a perfectly placed rhythm structure- a transcendent moment. During the initial vocal segment, Fareed spoke of the foreign child laborers involved in the production of rubberized poodles for Americans. "There is nothing quite as honorable as dying in a poodle factory."

While the Friday set was fun, especially the opener and closer, Saturday night's set really shined. The band seemed much more relaxed, the crowd much warmer and the groove much deeper. The funky rhythm charge of Be Dope had an altered intro, with Eric playing what is usually Fareed's line and a brief moment when the music became low and throaty. Eric dominated the first jam, dancing and swinging about the keys while Fareed clipped out a rhythm line. The following guitar lead was equally bright, skipping like a brook, Kai providing the submerged boulders that gave texture to the surface's flow. The ensuing number also included some excellent playing from the bassist, as he established its foundation, allowing the others to construct it in layers above. As Fareed pulled the song together, as Eric soloed lyrically, as the drums churned, a tempestuous body of water, Kai snaked along beneath, moving through stone. A soaring jam led by Fareed finally landed in a fluid bass solo! where Kai's brilliance rose to the forefront.

A short, hypnotic jam then segued into Meatless Patty. The funky, funky keys drove the song, building the progression bar after bar until it was raging. Fareed tore into a line with a Scofield sounding pedal in effect, played a couple lines, and switched, saying, "That's way too New York!" By the close the groove was incredibly deep, the band laying it down dirty and playing it back clean. The second they finished Meatless Patty, they charged into a rip snorting Guitar Slut. Here Eric's flying Moog leads in the second jam dominated, his fingers twisting out high, strained notes shadowed by themselves, and eventually bending them back into the song. Not to be outdone, Fareed turned out a solo that similarly blazed back into the song when the time came.

To close, the band offered a funky Cosmic Elevator, complete with a deep, polished, tubular jam that landed, at Eric's behest, in We Want The Funk, Kai singing, "There's a whole lot of Eric going on," followed by Celtic Indian. The most trance-styled tune in the band's repertoire, it began with a resonating vibe reminiscent of Sector 9 sounds, and in fact, the bands have conspired in the past. Again, Eric's Moog work was noteworthy, clear ideas embellished with nothing more than the space they needed to grow. At an odd phase shift, the whole band seemed to let go of its guideline, stumbling toward the end of the song, but snapping suddenly into the end of The Chicken. Fareed did intros as the band finished its reprise, and then at Alan's urging, launched back into Celtic Indian to close- musicianship of the highest order. It's pretty obvious what side of the funk they're on: the right side.

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