Garaj Mahal is a strange and colorful bird. It's music draws heavily from '70s fusion, with elements of everything from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever to Weather Report, as well as progressive rock bands in the broadest sense of the term. To this already potent mix where, needless to say, high octane musicianship is par for the course are added elements of funk, jazz, and a certain melodic quality vaguely reminiscent of the Grateful Dead.
Garaj Mahal resemble the legendary Dead in other ways; it is one of few bands who permit recording of its concerts, and, despite the strong production values and high energy levels on Woot, it feels that, like the Grateful Dead, its natural habit is on stage stirring up an audience.
The blistering attack of drummer Alan Hertz, whose playing sparkles throughout, drives the band through the fast-paced opener, "Semos," with the band jamming on a melodic motif which serves as a launching pad for the improvisations that ensue. Keyboardist Eric Levy's solo departs from a probing jazz aesthetic before morphing into a synth solo that takes wings.
The funk of "Hotel," sounds like the James Taylor Quartet playing the theme for Huggy Bear, with Levy again impressing on an extended solo over the slinky dance-groove laid down by bassist Kai Eckhardt and Hertz. Rattling cowbells and a snarly, muted trombone add to the mix, while guitarist Fareed Haque's solo is suggestive of Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin's unique style.
Haque is a versatile player: on the catchy "Uptown Tippitinas" he tosses off ragged-edged blues lines on electric guitar; on the excellent "Pundit-Ji" his accelerated runs on moog-guitar blur the line between guitar and keyboard; on several other notable interventions he displays a very keen jazz sensibility.
The playing and interplay, is first-rate and there are plenty of imaginative touches throughout which mean the music never becomes predictable. The use of piano on "Seven Cows Jumping over the Moon" is as refreshing as it is unexpected in the midst of a forest of synthesizers. Power chords on "Ishmael and Isaaac" contrast with acoustic finesse, and Metheny-esque vocals and bass line, and the briefest of India vocalizing all add nuance and pleasing textures.
The slowest track on Woot is also the most beautiful; "Corner Piece" stems from a simple yet delightful melody of the sort guitarist/composer Frank Zappa conjured up. The track features Haque's most electrifying playing, not on electric or moog-guitar, but on acoustic, where his phenomenally fast playing and Indian flavor evokes comparison with John McLaughlin's playing in Shakti. Piano clusters build gradually and appetizingly; Levy's rumbling low-end notes and sharp chords in isolation precede a flurry of high notes which peter out, gently ushering in the melody once more to close a wonderful tune.
Conceptually, Garaj Mahal keep it fairly simple on Woot. The band displays a joy in the outstanding yet unpretentious musicianship, which, combined with seductive melodies and deep grooves, whets the appetite to hear this music live.