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Jam May Be the New Fusion: But Garaj Mahal promise to go easy on the mini-moog.

Bombay the Hard Way

Garaj Mahal brings its own brand of jam band ragas to Moe's Alley

By Peter Koht

Unlike most groups, whose first rehearsals are happily lost to the ether, Garaj Mahal's first get-together is down on tape. In fact, it's their first record. "Hi, how ya doin'?" is usually not followed by "Who's got tunes?" and then "Let's record," but then again, Garaj Mahal is not your typical band.

Nominally led by the brilliant guitarist and composer Fareed Haque, the band's five years of existence have been marked by high-velocity group improvisations, subcontinentally influenced song forms and a bruising touring schedule. Comprised of Haque's former student Kai Eckhardt on bass, Allen Hertz on drums and Eric Levy on keyboards, the band has established its presence on the jam band circuit, even though its harmonic vocabulary is developed to a higher degree than that of, say, Galactic.

Reminiscent of Chick Corea's and John McLaughlin's late-'70s excursions into the stratosphere, Garaj Mahal is unabashedly virtuosic. Unlike Al DiMeola however, they don't have their panties in a bunch over it. Assessing his prodigious talents at the keys, Levy mentions that "it is far more practical for me to be humble. This is what I have chosen to do with my life and I am grateful for the opportunity to do it."

Levy's humbleness probably comes from the fact that he is the son of a dork. His dad, "who was really into programming synthesizers," made sure that along with learning his scales and chord tones, young Eric also learned about how to manipulate square tones inside the belly of a Minimoog. His son's response to these lessons (which would later serve him well in Garaj Mahal) is classically hilarious. "I was like 'Cool! I can make Pink Floyd songs!'"

In the midst of creating compositions filled with musical ornamentation, ring tone modulations and brassy chromaticism, how do Levy and Garaj Mahal manage to keep the song rather than the technique in the forefront?

"I can tell you that that is definitely an issue that we deal with," Levy says with a chuckle. "Always listening to each other and not being afraid of following each other are the times when we as a band are really reaching our fullest potential."

While the band started out heavily relying upon Haque's charts, in recent years the genesis of most of their compositions has been onstage. "I place a high value on the concept of group improvisation," Levy explains. "A song that we play might have a form, but one of the members of the band might play something that leads us into a whole different realm and basically changes the composition."

These new forms and sounds permeate the band's new release, Blueberry Cave. "We all had several compositions in the mix this time," Levy says. "What we tried to do initially was picking two compositions from everybody and recording them. But the final product didn't turn out like that exactly." What did result was a record whose tracks are simultaneously lighter and tighter than the band's debut. Even for a group of virtuosos, a few rehearsals don't hurt.

Garaj Mahal, Sunday, Nov. 27, Moe's Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. Tickets $13/advance, $15/door. 9pm. (831.479.1854; www.moes alley.com)

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From the November 23-30, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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