It is no secret that modern jazz musicians often draw upon multiple cultures when creating their art.
In Rudresh Mahanthappa’s case, he begins by meshing traditional music from India along with influences ranging from the Middle East to the East Village, from blues and rock to funk and just about anything else you might care to name.
The results are stunning in their sonic diversity, striding across genres with a clearly focused intensity that astonishes and unnerves in equal measure.
Mahanthappa first came to play in Buffalo as part of the Albright-Knox’s “Art of Jazz” series in 2008, when he was a member of Vijay Iyer’s quartet. Unlike that concert, where the hall was fairly full, Sunday afternoon’s concert with Mahanthappa as the headliner – with his group, Gamak – found the venue tightly packed; ticket holders straggling in at the last minute were left searching for a rare vacant seat.
Gamak is a ferociously talented quartet featuring Mahanthappa on alto saxophone as the composer and front man for the group along with guitarist David Fiuczynski, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss playing in support. Everybody had standout moments, as the music allowed space for solos and duos in addition to moments where the interplay was so tightly wound that telepathy could be suspected.
All of this was evident from the opening moments of the program as “Waiting Is Forbidden” featured Mahanthappa’s funk-inspired phrasing and Fiuczynski’s pungent riffing. They formed the base for the rhythm section to drive the angular melody for a few moments before handing the sonic reins back to the bandleader. It was jazz, complete with improvisatory passages that introduced each of the musicians and their talents, but there were also a few measures that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Robert Fripp/Adrian Belew project.
Fiuczynski’s double neck guitar – fretless on top, fretted on the bottom – and battery of electronics allowed him plenty of opportunity to slip from playing sitar-like tones to offering pedal-driven distortions. Weiss’ supple approach to tabla-inspired rhythms on his drum kit and Moutin’s energetic bass lines pushed and pulled the pulse of the music to fit the needs of the moment.
But when it came down to it, this was Mahanthappa’s gig. His artistic vision guided the results. No matter how pleasant things were between the players onstage, there was none of this “first among equals” stuff. He wrote the tunes, left room for the others to operate and made sure that everybody followed his lead.
When he nodded his head or looked a certain way at the band members, Mahanthappa was a conductor, in command of who was playing what when. The sidemen all had their moments, spots where they got to show their mettle, but his solos were the most consistently arresting.
For those who are interested, Padmanabha and his brother Ravi will play a concert of Indian classical music at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Buffalo State.
2012-13 Hunt Real Estate Art of Jazz Series: Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Gamak
Sunday afternoon in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.