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 Sunday, 29 November 2015
East Meets West: The Aakash Mittal Quartet, "Possible Beginnings" PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 23 March 2009

Possible Beginnings

“...every moment can be the start of something new or the end of something old, and that "through improvisation we seek to create something new from the old. Our music is a combination of structure and freedom, of prepared material and spontaneity. We seek to create possible beginnings.” –Aakash Mittal (Possible Beginnings, 2008) 

One of the most exciting features of the Twin Cities jazz scene is the Late Night series at the Dakota Jazz Club, initiated a few years ago by musician/jazz entrepreneur Jeremy Walker and now curated by club staffer/trumpeter Dan Eikmeier. Throughout its run, the weekend Late Night gig calendar has offered new, experimental and otherwise unusual music in the after-hours time slot. Usually the musicians are local innovators, and sometimes a debut at Late Night is a prelude to prime time bookings and greater visibility—such as the Atlantis Quartet, Monk in Motian, John Raymond Project. But now and then Dan brings in a ringer—an ensemble from more distant realms. On Saturday, March 21st, Late Night patrons had the opportunity to experience the cross-cultural explorations of Denver-based alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal and his quartet, and in particular, were treated to nearly two hours of nonstop samplings of Mittal's compositions, many of which appear on  his recent debut release, Possible Beginnings. A a "beginning," this CD should quickly gain Mittal a wider reputation as a creative composer and improvisor. 

Aakash Mittal

Aakash Mittal Quartet
Cross-culturalism describes Mittal’s own background—his father is from India, his mother from the U.S. Growing up in Texas, Mittal moved to Loveland, CO at 14. He took up saxophone as a student at Loveland High School, and was first attracted to big band swing. A University of Colorado jazz camp prompted his pursuit of jazz studies at the university, and he also dabbled in Brazilian and funk music. But it was his first encounter with paternal relatives (many of whom are musicians)in Chicago, shortly before starting college, that sparked his interest in the music of India. Notes Mittal, “My cousin is a classically trained Hindustani singer. My uncle plays a classical Indian hand drum. They are friends with Ravi Shankar... So I got to jam with them. And before that I had just been playing jazz and listening to Indian music, and then all of a sudden I got to meet all these people that I was related to. So after that, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in.”  

Mittal shares a common heritage with one of his muses, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, an Indian American musician from nearby Boulder, CO (now based in New York) who has been praised for his fusion of traditional Indian music and American post bop. “He is kind of like an older, way more developed version of myself,” Mittal says of Mahanthappa. “Or, I’m more like the younger, less-experienced version of him, is probably more like it.” 

These days, Mittal performs all original music with his quartet in Denver/Boulder area venues, leads a standards-based Brazilian duo, and a classical flute and harp duet. He’s performed with some of India’s acclaimed musicians including Ravi Shankar, in pit orchestras including Urintown and with the Loveland Opera Theater’s Magic Flute. A devoted music educator as well as performer, the 24-year-old has run a private lessons studio and has taught ensembles in area high schools, middle and elementary schools. He’s also composed over thirty compositions for jazz quartet and studied classical Indian music in Kolkata, India earlier this year with internationally renowned artists Pandit Tanmoy Bose and Prattyush Banerjee. 

Mittal’s quartet includes University of Northern Colorado Professor Matt Fuller on guitar, Denverite Jean-Luc Davis on bass, and Boulder musician Josh Moore on drums. 

The Music, Possible Beginnings

Aakash Mittal
Listening to the music of Aakash Mittal, live or on CD, one can hear his diverse influences—John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Johnny Hodges, and of course Rudresh Mahanthappa. Although there’s a gorgeous “Body and Soul” on Mittal’s website, he now concentrates on performing original compositions that draw equally from his eastern roots and his American avant garde leanings. “Original music just felt more genuinely me,” Mittal told Glen BurnSilver (Reporter–Herald). “I thought about what I wanted to present and I felt this represented myself and the band more. It was something kind of different. It’s not to say I don’t like standards, but I didn’t feel I needed to do them. I don’t feel like that’s my contribution to music.” Of his compositions, he noted that “It’s more about getting into the groove or playing a scale that’s more exotic in this part of the world... I try to incorporate a groove element into it, so it’s not totally free or totally out. There is freeform stuff, but also the abstract and element of structure within a groove someone might be able to relate with.”

Twelve Mittal compositions tend to flow into each other, creating more of a suite than simply a playlist. Overall the music could serve as the sound track to a film that takes its protagonist around the world, dodging danger and discovering hidden wonders; in some respects the compositions are reminiscent of some of the works of Charles Lloyd, particularly his experiments with flute and taragato. In live performance, Mittal provided stories for many of these works, which were often inspired by encounters with his Indian relatives or his recent visit to his mother's homeland, where such sounds as the frenzy of traffic worked their way into his music. ("Street," which will hopefully be recorded on his next CD, provided a delightful interlude in his Dakota set.)

The CD's title track opens with a spacious ambience that suggests the beginning of the universe or the initiation of a wide-ranging adventure. Rising out of a pool of fusion, Mittal unfolds his eastern themes, only to implode in a Coltranish swirl, resolving in waves of sustained elegance. “Choices and Changes” finds the rhythm section weaving a fusion-grooved backdrop to Mittal’s frenetic twists and spins, with harmonies courtesy of Matt Fuller’s guitar. 

The buzzy ominous beginning of “Prelude” suggests the soundtrack to a dark thriller. Moore is particularly active in keeping a continuous wash of cymbals beneath Mittal’s almost sinister lines. Building in intensity, the track folds immediately into “Nachana” as if a new day, the music brightening with joyful drum patterns.  Fuller’s chords sustain Mittal’s sunnier phrases that twirl and dance in celebration. The guitar solo follows the same agenda of fleet fingering and swirling motion, as does Davis, whose bass tone perfectly mirrors the overall sound sensations of this track. 

On the simply titled “Drum Solo,” Moore sets up a solid groove (with hands on drums?), altering the rhythm while tossing in cymbal crashes that build to a climax, then recede. It’s only 90 seconds but he tells a complete story. “Hindustani Song” is the intersection where Bombay meets funk. Percussion and bass establish a funk groove, while Mittal and Fuller create a conversation of Old World themes, back and forth and in counterpoint, filling their lines with provocation and eccentric harmonies, hints of east meets west. Electronic effects from guitar provide a mesh for Davis to pluck and bow on “Alaap,” a dirge-like etude. Oddly melodic, sliding and slithering from high to low register, this track leads directly into the Byzantine “Billu.” The bowed bass continues its trance-like state until interrupted by Moore’s clicky sticks and low level thumps. Mittal’s snakey sax alternates with Fuller’s guitar lines, the two coming together in a seductive sparring that builds until the fever breaks, resolving in a less furious, equally powerful statement. 

On “Raja,” Mittal’s flute sings beautifully over guitar. Davis and Moore set up a soft vamp, Fuller adds a line of sweetly harmonious chords as Mittal launches his journey. Fuller is at his most melodic, linear but filled with curves rather than angles. Flute and guitar braid a line of hypnotic repetition before the flute rises to lead the ensemble in a vigorous dance before flute and guitar resolve together. “Funktional Corruption” is indeed a funky conversation between sax and rhythm section, which here strongly suggests Fender Rhodes. Slow bubbling passages are interspersed with sudden eruptions and whirling dervishes. “Vandana” brings a welcome calm after the preceding thunderstorm. Mittal’s centerpiece, an unaccompanied solo, takes exquisite flight. There are a number of “Possible Endings,” each musician getting his own space, starting with a flurry of percussion, then unison statement from guitar and sax, commentary from bass, leading into a more sharp-turned conversation among the ensemble to close the set. 

As is typically the case in jazz, a recording can not measure up to live performance, and indeed the Aakash Mittal Quartet should be enjoyed in the intimacy of a small club or performance space where the musicians stretch out beyond what is practical in the studio. But Possible Beginnings is nevertheless a vibrant introduction to an artist whose style and compositions seem years beyond his 25, a musician who should pique the curiosity and ears of long-established titans. And if Aakash Mittal comes to a venue near you, join the audience. Even if it is a midnight gig.

More on Aakash Mittal at; Possible Beginnings is available from CD Baby at  

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