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Garaj Mahal: More Mr. Nice Guy

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American funk, jazz, African-based rhythms and Middle Eastern modalities are all part of the collective sound of Garaj Mahal's More Mr. Nice Guy. That, perhaps, is the "nicest" characteristic of this CD, where there's a multitude of voices sounding from the corners of our blue marble—although "smoking hot" might be a better description. Reminiscent of Return to Forever, fusion and world music, these musicians have a vast tapestry of stories to tell.

The Flat Earth Ensemble, featuring guitarist Fareed Haque, burst into prominence in early 2009 Flat Planet (Owl Studios, 2009), followed by Garaj Mahal's wOOt (Owl Studios, 2009). GM's lineup is amorphous; members come and go as the musical winds take them. This time out, it features Haque on guitar and sitar-guitar, accompanied by Kai Eckhardt ably supplying the bass, Eric Levy on keyboards of various persuasions and Sean Rickman on drums and vocals. Haque has been on the scene for over two decades, receiving awards such as "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" (Down Beat, 2009) and "Best World Guitarist" (Guitar Player, 2009). Haque is currently a music professor at Northern Illinois University, teaching jazz and classical guitar; these CDs are now garnering the guitarist and the entire ensemble the attention they so richly deserve.

There is a reason for this: the music is jammin,' yet not so overwhelming that its strong melody lines become muddied. Each musician is on his own path, yet dovetails perfectly with his band mates. "Witch Doctor" immediately drops into the groove with some deep bass guitar work from Eckhardt and keeps up steadily through "The Long Form," an homage to American funk where a deep explanation in musical prose informs the color of the music. Switching the pace to a more delicate sound, on "Frankly Frankie Ford," Haque shows off his ability for nuance after the group pegs the needle on the earlier songs. "Chester the Pester" is brilliantly complicated, but demonstrates GM's sense of humor; whoever Chester is, he must be quite the pest. "Allison's Pony" closes the story with just enough sweet pensiveness to bring the multilingual flight back to earth. Levy in particular shines on this song, lending an almost Methenyesque panoramic take to the intro.

All of the musicians shine as equals to Haque's virtuosity; they have to be, or his playing would be overwhelming. Rickman debuts with the group here, his imagination and fluidity providing a belly dancer's seductive rhythms to the mix; Levy has a voice that is strong and winsome, delicate without artifice. Here is also evidence of Haque's democratic sensibilities; he could have made any of these forays into "The Fareed Haque Band," and they would have worked, but he—and his master musician colleagues—took the harder but more transcendent course, with each musician adding his own essence. Because that's jazz—and music at its finest—when a combination of voices works, it jams, eclipsing any single voice.

Track Listing: Witch Doctor; Faster Than the Speed of Time; Tachyonics; The Long Form; Today; Frankly Frankie Ford; What My Friends Say; Chester the Pester; Alison's Pony.

Personnel: Fareed Haque; guitars: Kai Eckhardt; bass: Erick Levy; keyboards: Sean "The Rick" Rickman; drums.

Title: More Mr. Nice Guy | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Owl Studios


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