Head-bobbing aural bong fodder?

Nah brah—Garaj Mahal are miles past \nthe jazzbo jam set

October 25, 2001

Last year an improvisational foursome played a club in San Francisco, and they liked it so much they asked the audience to name their band. They took suggestions on the spot and over the Web and after poring through all the potential names they decided on one. The next time the group played in San Francisco they made an announcement: Henceforth, they were Garaj Mahal.

“The person who submitted this name has since sent an e-mail to us, his name is Ted Silverman—he’s on the band’s guest list for life,” says bass player Kai Eckhardt on the band’s Web site.

Just think, you could be like Ted Silverman. Show up at Garaj Mahal’s show at Missoula’s BarnBurner concert on Halloween and you could end up naming a song. Or their next album. Or maybe one of the band member’s children!

Garaj Mahal’s members have played with everyone from jazz and fusion heavies like Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul to experimental rockers Primus and Mr. Bungle. Guitarist Fareed Haque is an accomplished classical musician. According to the band’s Web site, he “is an active transcriber of baroque, as well as South American music and has had numerous modern works dedicated to him.” In fact, he is an associate professor of jazz and classical guitar studies at Northern Illinois University. (Though the Web site cautions, “Don’t ever call him ‘Professor Haque’ or he’ll smash you over the head with an MXR distortion-plus.”)

The aforementioned Kai Eckhardt, who grew up in Germany and West Africa, has also taught college. He taught at his alma mater, the Berkelee School of Music in Boston. He has toured with the John McLaughlin Trio, composed pieces for Bobby McFerrin, and toured the world with musicians from many different countries.

Just in case you think you can’t be a studied musical egghead and know how to party, consider this: Kai Eckhardt taught a master class at the Musician’s Institute of Technology in Los Angeles with Steve Smith, the drummer for Journey.

Garaj Mahal drummer Alan Hertz started playing drums at the age of two. When not playing with Garaj Mahal, he plays with the Alan Hertz Project. See what high caliber musicians we’re dealing with here? They have their own Projects.

Finally there’s keyboardist Eric Levy, who spent two years playing aboard a Premier Cruise Lines ship. Now, I’m not dropping this detail as some sort of snickering dis, really. Some of the best jazz musicians I know have savored assignments playing on cruise lines. It’s a sweet deal that lets you kick back and do nothing but play for long stretches of time with financial security. Manna for a jazz guy. Levy did his time with Premier, and he did his time at Northern Illinois University, where his professor was none other than Fareed Haque.

So, what do all of these fierce bios mean, exactly? Well, it means that this isn’t your average jam band. Sure, they may talk about “good vibrations” and “positive energy” and their sets may be 20-minute free-form improvisations, but it’s not all head-bobbing aural bong fodder. These guys are really accomplished musicians, and it comes through. Feel the groove and pump the positivity, sure, but don’t forget to pay close attention to the musical innovation. They may have fearsome chops but they’re not flashy about it. They’ll keep a tight groove going for the whole length of an extended jam, and then flutter in and out with hints and flashes of solos, cacophonous moments of intensity, and memorable riffs. It’s a subtle but intense experience.

One caveat. Of course, if you’ve read this far into the article you probably don’t need the warning, but just in case you heard the name and were expecting a typical garage band, beware. Admittedly, I took on the task of writing about Garaj Mahal because I heard the name and was expecting an Estrus/Crypt Records style punk rockin’ garage band. Garaj Mahal do not play in the garage. Remember the guy in college who turns his room into a “meditation chamber” by getting rid of his furniture, putting pillows on the floor, burning incense all the time, and contorting himself until he could sit bow-legged? They play in that guy’s room. But they play really damn well.

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