Interviews

Aakash Mittal Wrote His New Album While Living in India

Aakash Mittal celebrates the release of his new album, Nocturne, at Dazzle on Friday, September 17.
Aakash Mittal celebrates the release of his new album, Nocturne, at Dazzle on Friday, September 17. Fully Altered Media
Before living in Kolkata, India, for nearly two years as part of a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies, saxophonist and composer Aakash Mittal, who grew up in Loveland, had been fusing Eastern Indian music and jazz on his first few albums. During his time in India, from 2013 to 2015, Mittal studied and listened to Indian music, but also absorbed the city’s bustling noisescapes, which would inform much of the first draft of his new album, Nocturne.

Mittal, who celebrates the release of Nocturne at 7 p.m. Friday, September 17, at Dazzle, says that each of the five “Nocturne” pieces on the twelve-track album were inspired by different evening ragas he studied while in India. “Nocturne I” ebbs and flows rhythmically, quickly accelerating and then snapping back to the original tempo, while on “Nocturne II,” Mittal wanted to capture the sonic density of the Gariahat Market in Kolkata; the city’s cacophonous car horns motivated “Nocturne III.” Boisterous traffic noises are also captured on the three “Street Music” tracks.

While Mittal, who was mentored by musicians Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, has released four albums with his quartet, Nocturne marks the debut release with his Awaz Trio, which includes guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan.

Since initially writing the songs for Nocturne in India, Mittal, who moved to Brooklyn in 2015, has performed them not only with the Awaz Trio, but with various other musicians, including drummers Alex Ritz and Dan Weiss and guitarists Travis Reuter and Rez Abbasi.


“I took this music and played around with a lot of different people,” Mittal says.

Mittal had also been rewriting some of the songs over half a decade. When the Lincoln Center booked him to play a few years back, Swaminathan suggested they finally record the Nocturne material.

“She said, ‘We've been playing these tunes for like five years. We should record this,’” Mittal says. “So I used that concert as the impetus to go into the studio.”

By the time the trio started tracking Nocturne in the studio in 2018, Mittal had known drummer and percussionist Milford Graves for about two years. He first met Graves at the Village Vanguard when the drummer was playing with Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn and Bill Laswell.

Mittal studied with Graves and spent time with him during the last five years of his life (Graves died last February), but he had already been applying some of Graves’s musical concepts to his own playing by the time he started recording Nocturne.

“One of the big takeaways is the idea of playing my instrument from the standpoint of physicality,” Mittal says. “Rather than it being about the names of notes and those kind of structures in terms of note names, chord scales and all that kind of stuff that we're often taught, it’s more about thinking about creating the sound or even structuring the sound based on the physical movements on the instrument.”

When playing the saxophone, Mittal started concentrating on the movement of his hands and fingers as well as his embouchure and how he pushes air through his mouth and uses his tongue. Through Graves’s lessons, he also began to focus more on timbre than pitch.

Nocturne was recorded three years ago, and Mittal's abilities have grown since then.

“What's interesting is that this recording kind of happened in the middle of all of that, because [Graves] just passed away last February,” he says. “So I feel like there's hints of me starting to think about this stuff in there, but I feel like I was still playing a lot of articulated straight things.”

The Aakash Mittal Awaz Trio plays at 7 p.m. Friday, September 17, at Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street. Tickets are $10-$20 and available at the Dazzle website.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon