Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal surveyed the scene from offstage, sometimes with a smirk, sometimes with his eyes closed, lost in the music at Rockwood Music Hall last week. This time he had his serious impresario hat on, and the band he’d pulled together was killing it. To his far right, pianist Arcoiris Sandoval drove hard to a crescendo, valkyrie fingers voicing wide-angle, upwardly cascading chords. Bassist Ray Parker shifted in a second from stark. bowed washes into a late 70s Ron Carter-style racewalk. Drummer Alex Ritz made a different, similarly devious shift, from triplets to a jazz waltz. Trumpeter Brad Goode was also chilling at that moment, having tickled the audience with his leperchaun glissandos and fleeting swoops and chirps, when he wasn’t inviting a harbor mist in with his looming, lustrously sustained muted phrases.
That was just the first song. They didn’t even hit the head – it was Straight, No Chaser – until the final chorus. With a lyricism that was as subtle as it was striking, Mittal had opened it with a vivid bhangra riff, but the attack was the opposite of the kind of wind-tunnel pyrotechnics that another Indian-inspired altoist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, would probably have made out of it.
Throughout the group’s tantalizing hour onstage Mittal relished the role of protean instigator, reaffirming his position as one of the most mutable, versatile saxophonists in New York. That opening riff and variations were gentle but bright and brassy, in a Jackie McLean vein. After that, Mittal went into balmy mode, but with a brisk, Birdlike, bluesy focus. Then he brought some gruffness into the picture as the band built steam.
It’s very rare to see Mittal playing standards – he usually plays his own intricate, dynamic material which frequently references or interpolates classical Indian themes.. Yet he also calls for more individual input than most bandleaders do: assembling the exact core of personalities for a specific blend of jousting and unexpected thrills seems to mean as much to Mittal as the tunes themselves.
And everybody delivered. Goode – a Chicago-based player who gets here too infrequently – switched effortlessly between daunting extended technique and solitary deep-night Miles, whether playing with a mute or not. Parker and Ritz delivered a percolating, floating swing early on, then Parker played chiller, Ritz following with one nifty peek-a-boo turn through his hardware and cymbal bells after another until everybody was smiling. Then he found a clave and hung with it, through the night’s best number, All the Things You Are – even when he went back to the hardware department. Meanwhile, Sandoval flashed lowdown roadhouse blues, austere Chopin and bright, condor-winged chords that brought to mind Luis Perdomo.
After all that, the group made a rapturously closing tone poem of sorts out of You Don’t Know What Love Is. Mittal’s next gig is on October 22 at 4 AM (yes, in the morning) at the Rubin Museum of Art as part of Brooklyn Raga Massive’s allnight festival. Tix for the 4 to 7 AM time slot (probably the hottest part of the night) are $30.