One of the ways jazz has grown is by absorbing the sounds and rhythms of other cultures. African and Latin American music were strong early influences. Today, India is making waves. Since classical Indian music has always included extensive improvisation, it seems it might have happened sooner. However, while spirituals, rumbas and African drums readily appeal to Western ears, Indian raga is a more difficult fit, its scales more exotic, its rhythms more austerely complex.
But now, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappat and pianist Vijay Iyer have convincingly incorporated India into their playing, and the less well-known Ziggurat, an exceptional Seattle quartet, has also been touched by the mysterious East.
The 10 pieces here, all originals, are excellent, as are the arrangements, ensemble playing and soloing. Most tracks, though tinged with the unusual, will appeal immediately to modern jazz fans. A few, which feature repeated minimalist phrases or decidedly strange rhythms, may need more patience and attention.
"XoBox" is the quirky beginning. The piano trio sets a hip, funky stage and is then joined by Eric Barber's soprano saxophone. Drummer Byron Vannoy and bassist Doug Miller churn away in a juicy mix of New Orleans and mainstream while a piano and sax duet traces less traditional, nourish lines. Miller, staying in the mainstream, solos. Barber follows with the first strong hint of India. Pianist Bill Anschell returns to more conventional thoughts before the full quartet takes the tune out.
Barber switches to tenor on "The Bottom Stair." His cool tone on the appealingly simple melody reminds me of Jan Gabarek's work with Keith Jarrett. The tune is taken at a moderate tempo, but with an unusual underlying rhythm, held firmly by the trio behind Barber. The following "Vindaloo," at a similar tempo, has an even clearer East-Indian rhythmic vibe. This time both Anschell and Barber add exotic melodies to that underpinning. Barber manages a sequence that might be designed to hypnotize a cobra before letting loose with Coltrane-like soprano-sax abandon.
Given what happens on the first half of the album, the Latin mood of "Zigtuno" is a surprise. Drums and piano start it off like a lead-in to Tito Puente. At one point Anschell repeats the main melody in mambo-band style as Vannoy aces the percussion solo, even without timbales.
It's "Oregonian Monkey Chant" that got me thinking minimalist. Piano and soprano make like stuck organ-grinders throughout the arrangement as bass and drums have fun below the mainline.
This album makes a terrific first impression and its melodic and rhythmic sophistication reward repeated listens.
Seattle has more than coffee, Frazier and grunge rock. Highly recommended.