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Music Review: Garaj Mahal wOOt

So, when does jazz stop being jazz? There have been all sorts of jazz fusion groups over the years that have incorporated elements of other genres into their compositions from funk to straight ahead rock and roll and I wonder if there's a point where the music stops being jazz and becomes the other genre? Why would a song that's primarily a rock and roll song be still called a jazz piece just because the people performing it are nominally jazz musicians?

Perhaps jazz is less a musical genre and more a state of mind, and what defines the music, and by extension the musicians, is the intent behind the music and not the music itself. People who call themselves jazz musicians don't normally constrain themselves by thinking they have to write for a specific market or create any particular sound. They come up with an idea for a piece and then utilize whatever resources they have at their disposal to bring that to life. In some ways jazz is an organic process in that a composition will often develop out of the process of rehearsal as each player in a combo adds new layers and textures to a basic structure.

While there is always a certain element of improvisation in all music, it's far more likely that a jazz composition will not only have been created through improvisation, but a good deal of the song would continue to be improvised each time it's performed. Sometimes it appears that in order to write the ideal jazz song you only need to create a theme around which all the participating musicians can build their own contributions, and each time its played, the song is almost being rewritten. In that sort of atmosphere does it really matter what styles of music are utilized?
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A great example of a band taking the genre be dammed attitude and running with it can be found on Garaj Mahal's forthcoming release on the Owl Studios label, wOOt, which will be in stores on September 9th/08. While some jazz fusion groups might be content with adding either bits of blues, or funk, or rock into the mix, the guys in Garaj Mahal have no hesitation about utilizing any or all of the above in any one song. While that might give the impression that their music is kind of chaotic stew, the reality is ... well the chaos is controlled anyway. In fact come to think of it, sometimes listening to their compositions one is distinctly reminded of the butterfly in Japan flapping its wings and causing an earthquake in San Francisco. What appears to be a series of disconnected events are in reality very much interconnected.

I have to admit that it took me a while to find a way into their music because I wasn't accustomed to their approach. While I've listened to quite a bit of contemporary jazz in recent years and have been steadily gaining an ability to appreciate it, this disc initially left me confounded. Admittedly part of that was due to my ambivalence to the use of synthesizers, which feature in the first few tracks of the CD, and it wasn't until I was able to get beyond those feelings that I began to enjoy this disc. However, part of the difficulty does lie in the fact that this is music that continually takes you by surprise as you're listening to it.

Unless you're prepared not to anticipate what's going to happen bar to bar in the music you will end up feeling perplexed, puzzled, and not a little lost. Yet if you are willing to let go of preconceived notions of what you think music is supposed to do, you will find yourself being taken on some really spectacular voyages by superlative musicians. Kai Eckhardt (bass), Fareed Haque (guitars), Alan Hertz (drums), and Eric Levy (keyboards) are your guides on this journey, and they'll take you as far as you're willing to go.

There are some musicians who write comic songs, and there are even some of them who manage to be relatively humorous, but there have been precious few who have written music that makes me genuinely laugh out loud. On wOOt's first two tracks, "Semos" and "Hotel" the sounds that Eric Levy produces via his keyboards, (I'm assuming the synthesized sounds were produced by the keyboards, but they could also have been generated by Fareed Haque using a synthesized guitar) were so absurd that I couldn't help laughing at them. Once I was able to overcome my personal bias, I realized just how much fun the band was having with these two tracks and enjoyed them for that reason. It was almost like they were letting you know that although this was pretty complicated music that you shouldn't take it too seriously. Lighten up and enjoy yourself already, they seem to be saying, because we are.

It was only after about the third time that I listened to the disc (okay I admit I'm slow sometimes) that I realized just how much fun Garaj Mahal was having playing what they were recording. I don't know if I've ever heard a more exuberant sounding group of musicians. Unlike so many other ensembles who always seem so serious, these guys haven't forgotten that what they're doing is called playing. No matter how intense the music gets, and it does get really intense at moments, there's always that underlying feeling of how excited they are to be making music and how much pleasure and joy they get from it.

Earlier in the review I cautioned potential listeners about the danger of trying to anticipate a song's progression on this disc due to what seems like the band's firm believe in chaos theory. Or, everything is interconnected, somehow, and even if we can't quite figure out how at the moment we're sure to come up with something, sometime. The seventh track on the disc, "Ishmael and Isaac", starts off sounding like something from Fiddler On The Roof and somewhere along the way changes into something verging on hard rock. Oddly enough though, is that it works. You don't even notice the transition happening until all of a sudden you realize just how hard the electric guitar is screaming. Although you might wonder for a second, what ever became of that nice Klezmar music, it really doesn't seem to matter that much because this is what the song sounds like now - and this is what it's supposed to sound like.

Jazz is all about pushing the envelope and discovering new ways of expressing thoughts and emotions musically. If you're going to listen to jazz you have to be prepared to take quantum leaps alongside the musicians and hope that those who you're travelling with know what they're doing. If you decide to take the trip that Garaj Mahal will be offering on their forthcoming release, wOOt, you'll find that not only are you in good hands, but you're going to have a lot of fun. Not only do they play sublimely, they haven't forgotten what it means to play.

Leap In The Dark

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