Garaj Mahal's first studio album, Mondo Garaj, was recorded in 2000, during the band's early days. It has now been released, almost three years later, and just months after the release of their three volume set of live recordings. Mondo Garaj offers an interesting perspective into the way the band sounded as the players were getting used to each other and carving out their combined style. GM's trademark live show energy has been translated exceptionally well into its studio work. This release thrives in the experimental waters of crisp studio production.
Devoted fans will likely recognize most of this material from recent tours. Comparing live material to studio work is a little like apples and oranges so I won't try it. The level of musicianship you've come to expect is there, as well as their free flowing arrangements that lean toward meditational jazz jams. A closer inspection of the liner notes reveals that guests include DJ Fly Agaric and DJ Roto doing turntable freestyle on several songs, and Michael Kang of the String Cheese Incident sharing his electric mandolin on "New Meeting" and "Madagascar." The latter song comes off quite "cheesy," and that's a compliment.
Certain songs on the first half of the album strive for simplicity with some sacrifice of instrumental exploration. But on other tracks like "Gulam Sabri" the band gives itself more freedom to explore Indian, jazz, and funk terrains. This song typifies the GM experience through its eclectic styles and tasty playing. Kai Eckhardt's exemplary bass playing is a treat. His teasingly short solo entitled "The Big Smack Down" would make Jaco Pastorius proud. Fareed Haque's guitar and sitar, Eric Levy's keyboards, and Alan Hertz's drumming, as always, deserve equal attention and admiration throughout the album. The sum total of these parts is an enjoyable release that sounds fresh even as the material itself has since evolved throughout numerous tours.
It begs the question of when we might expect another studio release that captures the band with a few years of playing together under its belt. One of the things that makes Garaj Mahal special is their evolving interpretations of songs in their live sets. If they can harness a little more of this improvisational flavor in their next studio work, they'll have made something truly special.
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