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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Review: Jazzman Rudresh Mahanthappa captivates with absorbing set at NYUAD

Listening to Gamak feels much like listening to four people, each speaking different languages at the same time. But yet somehow, you know they're all talking about the same thing.
The four-man quartet, Rudresh Mahanthappa & Gamak, performed at The Arts Centere on the campus of NYUAD in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National
The four-man quartet, Rudresh Mahanthappa & Gamak, performed at The Arts Centere on the campus of NYUAD in Abu Dhabi. Delores Johnson / The National

It was like somebody booked the rain. As the final piece in Rudresh Mahanthappa’s set built to its exponential, ecstatic climax, slow fat drops of water began to plop down from above. One-by-one audience members, sat in lines across NYUAD’s East Plaza, looked about each other and shrugged in disbelief.

The Indian-American saxophonist played on oblivious to this minor assault of the elements — eyes clamped shut throughout his final virtuosic solo of the evening — until he finally let his horn, and lungs, rest.

“Is that rain? I didn’t think it rained in Abu Dhabi,” he exclaimed, childishly amazed. “Is that a good omen, or a bad one?”

It appeared, at the time at least, to be the final piece of tangible testament to the earth-shifting powers of this man’s music.

Performing works from 2013 album Gamak — a conceptual piece combining Mahanthappa’s NYC jazz background with a sustained study of Carnatic tradition — this was, by definition at least, fusion. But, so often a dirty word, this was fusion without the Teutonic fissures and buckles between continents — Mahanthappa’s assimilation of different musical languages is so deep, there’s nothing stereotypically exotic about it.

Playing on Tuesday, backed by the thunderstorm of drums, and electric bass and guitar, the most overt references to Indian classical music come in the monophonic use of short repeating melodic motifs — some even based on ancient ragas — in complicated times signatures, relentlessly riffed on by the band, spiralling ever further into the stratosphere of harmonic invention. Yet sonically, in the way these melodies and keys are switched between in tight structures and defined sections, there was as much in common with progressive rock.

Mahanthappa is flanked by guitarist Rez Abbasi, who acts more as a second lead than a rhythm player, a long-term collaborator granted chunks of stage time for blistering, effects-heavy workouts of the Metheny mode.

But this densely rhythmic music gives greater voice for the engine room to shine — drummer Dan Weiss and bassist Rich Brown are ceaselessly captivating as they shift around the beat, laying each other playful traps both are far too seasoned to fall into. Brown’s driving bass riffs are the necessary linchpin that grounds the band’s sonic extravagances, but even after vamping the same repeating refrain for several dozen bars over, his fresh-fingers feel like they’re plucking the melody for the first time.

Gamak’s studiously grounded sound is thrilling to absorb — a challenging and captivating consort of voices often oscillating from a single theme.

It feels much like listening to four people, each speaking different languages at the same time. But yet somehow, you know they’re all talking about the same thing.

• For more events at NYUAD’s The Arts Centre, see www.nyuad-artscenter.org

rgarratt@thenational.ae