Almost by definition, jazz resists structural boundaries and traditional limitations. This allows a constant opening toward innumerable influences from other global genres, endless musical opportunities, constant discoveries — and a profound connection to the human creative spirit.
Improvisation has always been a fundamental tenet of jazz and other jam-based music. The ability to exist solely in the moment, to capture and manipulate energy as quickly as it’s produced, is the heart of it. And the art of improvisation is also what guides one of the most talked-about groups in jazz and jam today: Garaj Mahal, an unlikely “supergroup” that’s quickly melting minds and pasting smiles across the faces of fans coast to coast.
“Essentially, everything is related. The unity is a given to begin with,” proclaimed bassist Kai Eckhardt in a recent interview, speaking about the band’s blend of jazz and jam. “It’s interesting to see why certain people move to jazz and others to jam. It mostly depends on upbringing — where kids grow up and what they are exposed to. The connection between jazz and jam is brought about by characters. Garaj Mahal is a good example.”
With a reputation as one of jazz’s most innovative performers, Eckhardt could easily have decided to call that side of the fence home. Born in Germany, he trained at Boston’s Berkelee College of Music and developed an alternative style built on unorthodox tunings and techniques. Eckhardt has worked with many jazz giants, including Al DiMeola, Bela Fleck and Bill Evans, though he may be best known through his work with the legendary John McLaughlin Trio in the late ’80s.
But two years ago, Eckhardt and acclaimed Chicago-based classical/jazz guitarist Fareed Haque joined forces in the Bay Area with young keyboardist Eric Levy (recruited into the band as a prodigious jazz student of Haque’s at Northern Illinois University) and drummer Alan Hertz (of Steve Kimock and KVHW fame) to launch Garaj Mahal.
When he speaks about his bandmates, Eckhardt beams. “All three of them have limitless abilities on their instrument. It’s an open end: You cannot see the end. All of their lives have centered with music. Garaj Mahal came out recently, but the four members have all been working their butts off with music since 1975. They are my family and my brothers, and I look out for them.”
Haque, the scion of a Pakistani father and a Chilean mother, has traveled the globe extensively, absorbing and performing music alongside such artists as Sting, Dizzy Gillespie, Edgar Meyer and Tony Williams. Over the past year, no one has made more noise in the jam scene than Haque; his fire-breathing, jazz-tinged guitar has lit up stages and sent thousands of unsuspecting fans home reeling and wondering who, exactly, that was on stage and whether what they heard was, in fact, real.
And though I’m more than hesitant to classify these guys as jazz/funk, or to label them anything except spine-noodling incredible, that’s basically what they are, with a larger emphasis on jazz fusion.
“The most important thing to remember, for us, is that we all attempt to create music without pre-empting the creative force, to live a life completely trusting the moment and knowing the moment will always provide what we need. Music created from that space is most beneficial to the human soul. It’s what all great musicians are striving for,” said Eckhardt.
Another reason I cringe when Garaj Mahal and the terms “jazz/funk” or “jam band” are linked is the suffocating mediocrity that’s all too common in both of those cultures. Rather than attacking this phenomenon, however, Eckhardt preferred to parry it with brimming positivity.
“We want to counter mediocrity in music. If there is a down period associated with a certain type of music, we feel a responsibility to uplift our own playing. I believe it’s important not to criticize other bands, as you have to assume there is a level much higher than what we can create that is out there. It might be a future band that finds it, or maybe it’s on a past performance by The Mahavishnu Orchestra that was never recorded.
“I feel Garaj Mahal is more bent toward exploring immediate space. We’re not worried about image, or creating an image, but we’re encountering that. We’re aware of it, and when it happens, we don’t feed into it by criticizing it — we just notice an opportunity to replace it with a higher movement in music,” he continued.
The music these guys are floating on transcends so much of what you previously swore must be “it.” They incorporate global bits of experience and ideas with disturbingly proficient skill to produce sounds that remind you of when music excited your mind, curled your toes and boiled your blood — all in a couple of carefully placed measures spiced with random sonic surprises.
“On one hand, you have tradition, carrying something on without changing it,” Eckhardt observed. “Fusion is a melting pot and, honestly speaking, something really new is going to happen in the next 10 years. I guess we’ll see the result of all the fusion and diversity in music now, those cross-cultural relationships blossoming more immediately [and] then breaking into that level of actual, spiritual transcending.
“Now, it’s set [against] the background of global warming, AIDS, cancer and pollution. In a sense, what we do as musicians, we are the voice of the people in its purest form. We’re an outcry and an expression, not a tactic.”
Garaj Mahal is seen and heard primarily through jam venues and festivals. Members often guest with other groups, and rumors of Garaj Mahal shows and other musical exploits ripple across the national grapevine with increasing frequency.
Now, the buzz has finally filtered into Asheville, and we’ll all have a chance to step inside the tornado for a couple of hours Tuesday night and see firsthand what it’s all made of. Batten down your hats.