“Tonight’s show is going to be very meditative and very beautiful – you’re going to want to soak in the piece, in one full bite,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused before Aakash Mittal took the stage with his trio this past evening. She was on to something. “My mind was blown by the variety of artists here,” Mittal agreed, being a regular at the atrium space where Dugal brings in talent from around the world (the Asian American Arts Alliance and India Center Foundation partnered with Lincoln Center to make this happen) Then the group launched into the world premiere of a piece Mittal had just finished at 11 PM the night before
It’s a shout-out to three artists Mittal has worked with in recent years: avant garde soul singer Imani Uzuri, paradigm-shifting microtonal saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh and similarly legendary drummer/cardiac medicine guru Milford Graves. That eclecticism perfectly capsulized what Mittal is all about: a rugged individualist with sax (and clarinet, and flute) building on some of the catchiest tunes in a five thousand year tradition for something completely new and different.
He began the show on his usual axe, alto sax with a characteristically simple, crystallized, resonant series of phrases as guitarist Miles Okazaki jangled and plinked, Rajna Swaminathan nimbly firing out boomy syncopation on her double-barreled mridangam drum. As this enigmatic tone poem built up steam, it made an apt introduction for the series of nocturnes, each inspired by an individual Indian raga, which followed on the bill.
Swaminathan was energized right from the beginning, so Mittal and Okazaki chilled out before leaping back in and taking the introductory theme skyward, high-voltage bhangra melismatics balanced by punchy pedal phrases from the guitar. Rudresh Mahanthappa at his moodiest and most concise came to mind.
As the trio gently launched into the first nocturne, Mittal’s brooding blue-light curlicues contrasted with Swaminathan’s knock-knock beats, Okazaki again holding the center but pulling hard against it with his acidic chords. Mittal ceded the foreground, hanging on a long, mysterious drone, then picked up the pace with a coyly furtive, noir-tinged melody and variations that methodically drifted toward a tight bhangra pulse.
Okazaki sputtered out basslines and a little muted skronk; Mittal alluded to the slashing chromatics of Arabic modes, finally leiving the mist behind with a couple of wildfire flurries and some otherworldly duotones. Deviously dancing phrases occupied moody ambience; Mittal’s insistence paired off with Okazaki’s resilient chordal steadiness and cheery bubbles, occasionally hinting at Cuban riffage. With the boom from the mridangam, the absence of bass wasn’t a big deal. Ironically, the final nocturne was the sparest yet most hypnotically anthemic.
They pared the sound down to the bone for a plaintive rainy-day duo soundscape, Swaminathan eventually providing some distant thunder beyond the gloom. The funky number after that was closer to straight-ahead postbop jazz, but still Okazaki’s tense modal attack didn’t stray far from the center while the dance grew more agitated.
A flute duo between Mittal and guest Pawan Benjamin drew on Anthony Braxton’s modular writing but even as the notes rose higher up the scale, Mittal’s circular, nocturnal phrasing remained consistent,up to a shadowy ambient interlude where he switched to clarinet. The full quartet closed with a rivetingly microtonal, slashingly melismatic take of Street Music, Mittal’s evocation of late-night jamming in Kolkata, where he studied classical Indian music on a scholarship.
Mittal’s next gig is part of the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s 24-hour raga marathon starting at 5 PM on Oct 5 and going all night at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. And the free, mostly-weekly series of shows at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues this Oct 4 at 7:30 PM with firebrand Egyptian accordionist/songwriter Youssra El Hawary, best known for her hilarious Arab Spring youtube hit Piss on the Wall.