Aakash Mittal meshes the music of his father's homeland with classic jazz
The first thing that struck me, being an American, is that I got off the plane and it was like this different level of chaos that I've never experienced before," says Aakash Mittal of a trip he took to India a couple years ago. "That first day you're in the street, and people don't follow any traffic rules at all. So, like, you'll have a whole bunch of traffic going one way and then one car going against traffic, and somehow it works out, like cows in the middle of the road and families that live on the median between traffic."
Mittal made the trip to his father's homeland to meet a side of his family that he'd never met before. He stayed for nine days, which was just long enough to get over the initial jet lag from such a long flight. Fortunately, the trip proved inspirational. On his second album, Videsh, the 24-year-old saxophonist continues to explore jazz as well his Indian heritage, offering a snapshot of a day in the life in India.
Starting in the morning with the slow, meditative introduction song "Subah," based on a Hindu morning raga, the album immediately takes on a frenetic pace with "The Street," a track that reflects the initial shock Mittal experienced. The other members of the quartet (guitarist Matt Fuller, bassist Jean-Luc Davis and drummer Josh Moore) weren't initially fond of placing "The Street" on the album so early on; they thought it made a jolting first impression. But Mittal stuck to his guns.
"I really stuck to it, because the whole point of it is sort of like this: shock in the beginning, and then, as you get accustomed to it, it chills out," Mittal explains. "It's the same with going through a day there. Early in the day things are crazy, but as it becomes nighttime, it's definitely a lot more chilled out. It's about having really big, relaxed meals and hanging out with people."
The track immediately following "The Street," the peaceful "Om Shanti," was inspired by Mittal's uncle taking him to a less densely populated part of town to an ashram type of spot, where there were huge white marble buildings and everyone was wearing white. Hearing the two songs back to back, Mittal says, shows the duality of having this sheer intensity and this super-meditative yoga-type side. "It's really crazy," he enthuses, "and then you're in this peaceful place, and then you're back into the craziness."
Along with other cuts on the album, both songs also include field recordings — such as the sounds of traffic on "The Street," or his uncle speaking on "Om Shanti" — that Mittal made during another trip to India in February to learn how to play Indian music correctly, and authentically. Since he had already recorded Videsh a month before he left for India, he wasn't able to apply any of what he learned to the album. Nonetheless, he's happy with the way the album turned out.
"In a way, I'm glad it is what it is, because it's more like a jazz musician playing it rather than someone trying to follow all the rules of Indian music," Mittal offers. "What I wanted to do was be able to compose and improvise from a more authentic perspective. So it doesn't necessarily mean that I'm going to try to create some kind of fusion album, or that from now on I'm going to follow the strict rules of a raga. But it's more like each new thing I might learn is like a new tool I can use or a new color to paint with. Now when we play, I do think of that more. I don't want to force it into any kind of box."
Applying techniques of Indian classical music to the saxophone has been challenging for Mittal, particularly since the music is more suitable to a sitar, which can essentially only be played in one key and where notes can be bent an octave or more. "If you try to put a sitar into a jazz setting, it wouldn't work as well, because you can't really change keys very easily," Mittal notes. "Part of what was fun was doing saxophone research and, like, how can I fake my way through this and be convincing as far as doing the different pitch bends and ornamentations and things like that."
Rudresh Mahanthappa, a highly touted New York-based saxophonist who also blends jazz and Indian music, has been something of a mentor and a major influence on Mittal since the two met four years ago at a show at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where Mittal was working toward a degree in saxophone performance. Mahanthappa offered advice on saxophone technique and how to change the embouchure to create a certain sound or use different palm key notes on the instrument.
"I did a lot of that on the first record," Mittal confesses. "When he listened to it, he said, 'You copped a lot of my shit.' But that's the tradition. You have to copy somebody for a while. A big part of the jazz tradition is the bigger successful guys taking younger guys under their wing and helping them out."
While it's easy to hear Mahanthappa's influence on both of Mittal's albums, Mittal is also a big fan of Dave Pietro, who was his sax hero his freshman year in high school, and of Jackie McLean's 1960s Blue Note albums. Although there's some bop on Videsh, Mittal says he was really trying to use all different types of musical palettes to express the experience. Although he dips into bop, avant-garde, groove rock and Indian music, the album still has a certain cohesiveness, which makes sense, because part of the plan was to create a twelve-song suite of sorts. "I was trying to think about it in those terms," he says, "as well as that each part can work individually."
While a majority of jazz tunes are based on a playing the melody in the beginning and at the end and then improvising in the middle, most of the cuts on Videsh are very composed out, which doesn't leave a lot of room for soloing. But he did write tunes that highlight each of his sidemen: Davis shows off some fine arco bass work on "Om Shanti," "Chapal ki Dukaan" features Moore's propulsive timekeeping, and Fuller delivers some extremely fluid legato phrasing à la Kurt Rosenwinkel on "Mughal Impressions," a tune inspired by Mittal's visit to the Taj Mahal.
In Videsh's liner notes, Mittal writes about what inspired each song, as a lot of them are about stories or real-life experiences, but he didn't relay that information to the other guys in the band.
"Part of that is like when we're playing, it's just the music," Mittal points out, "and they all put their own ideas into that, especially on the features. I really wanted them to personalize it and not try to be like, "Well, this is about this experience I had," because they didn't have it.
"That's one thing I like about jazz, is giving them the freedom," he concludes. I just give them the chart, and I step back and see what they do with it. And they always make it sound like ten times better."
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