By Troy Dostert
The first two cuts from Rudresh Mahanthappa’s latest release, Agrima, give one the impression that the music will be following the path taken by earlier records like 2008’s Kinsmen or 2011’s Samdhi. Both albums bore the unmistakable traces of Mahanthappa’s deep immersion in Indian classical music, with his hurtling alto sax tracing devilishly complex lines over energetic Carnatic rhythms. So when Mahanthappa’s meditative, yearning phrases emerge on “Alap,” the album’s opener, and Dan Weiss’s tabla enlivens the fast-tempo “Snap,” we think we know what to expect. But while there’s certainly a strong continuity between this release and Mahanthappa’s previous work, at the same time a more assertive rock-oriented sensibility is found on Agrima that gives the music a grittier, harder-edged feel. Indo-rock fusion, one might call it. And it succeeds wonderfully.
In contrast to the aforementioned records which featured fuller combos augmented by percussionists, Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition is just a trio, with the same personnel that were featured on the group’s previous release, Apti (from 2008): guitarist Rez Abassi and drummer Weiss. Even with the absence of a bassist or additional percussion, the music is rhythmically infectious. Some of the credit is due to Abassi, whose tough riffs and power chords lend a lot of musical drive to the proceedings; but just as crucial is Weiss, who gives equal time to the tabla and his conventional drum kit. When he makes the shift from the former to the latter midway through “Snap,” it becomes quite clear that the trio is committed to rocking out. Mahanthappa’s melodies throughout the album remain rooted in Indian classical motifs, and his improvisational chops are stunning as always, but they’re conjoined seamlessly to the powerhouse rhythmic foundation provided by Abassi and Weiss, and the resulting synthesis is irresistible.
The trio’s well-honed chemistry is critical to avoiding the monotony that can plague fusion-type records. Whenever a straightforward rhythm is established, Weiss helps shake things up, as he does on “Agrima,” where he teases and displaces the beat from time to time in order to keep things interesting. And the group seems able to shift meters at will, giving each track the feel of an open-ended journey. The implementation of electronics is also done creatively, sometimes looping Mahanthappa’s parts or creating additional textures that allow for a richer, larger-group sound. Imaginative choices abound, so there’s never a dull moment on the album.
It’s also worth noting that this recording involves some chance-taking on Mahanthappa’s part, as he’s opted to release it himself rather than work with a label—a path much more common among musicians still on their way up than for those nearing the peak of their powers and recognition. As of this writing, one can download this music directly from Mahanthappa’s website for a mere $2.50: an unbelievable bargain in this reviewer’s humble opinion. (For audiophile types, high-definition download and vinyl versions are also available.) One certainly wishes Mahanthappa luck in this venture, as inventive marketing approaches have increasingly become an imperative for most creative musicians. This is music that deserves to be heard, so hopefully this effort will expose it to an even wider audience.
For more info on Agrima, visit https://www.rudreshm.com/products/agrima.