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Aakash Mittal Reinvents Nocturnal Indian Sounds on His Magical New Trio Album

Musicians tend to be night creatures, and nobody knows that better than alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal. His new album Nocturne – streaming at Bandcamp – is a magical, evocative suite celebrating afterdark sounds, particularly several styles native to Kolkata, where he pursued an intensive study of Indian music and had many epiphanies along the way. It was a lot of fun watching him work up the material on the album in concert in venues across New York prior to the lockdown.

Mittal’s Awaz Trio take their name from the Hindi word which, depending on context, can mean sound, noise, or voice. Mittal is a connoisseur of all three. From Coltrane to Rudresh Mahanthappa, scores of reed players have used Indian music as a springboard for jazz, but Mittal’s alternately bright and mysterious sound is uniquely his own, in many ways closer to the otherworldly sources of the themes he draws on here.

The first sound on the album is Mittal’s Kolkata teacher Prattyush Banerjee urging him to keep his ears open. Mittal’s oboe-like, microtonal melismas over Rajna Swaminathan’s casually bounding mrudangam rhythm will give you goosebumps. He follows with the first nocturne and its contrasts between the insistence of Swaminathan and guitarist Miles Okazaki against his own wafting, fluttering atmospherics and semiquavers.

Mittal bookends a tantalizingly modal miniature, Street Music, with samples of Kolkata percussionists building a qawwali-like groove on the street outside a temple of Kali. Nocturne II draws on the restless Raga Marwa, an evening piece: the group circle through simple, clustering cell-like phrases, Mittal joining the interweave with gently assertive riffage, then hovering and bounding overhead. Those who don’t know the raga may not catch the Indian vernacular. Okazaki’s variations on what’s essentially a catchy, trickily syncopated bassline are a tasty touch, as is Mittal’s choice to go the mysterious route afterward.

Mittal loves rarely-played late-night and wee-hours ragas, which have some of the most delicious tonalities in the raga cycle, evidenced by the third nocturne, which draws on Raga Bageshri. The dichotomy is much the same as the first nocturne; perhaps ironically, it’s more vampy but also more lively. The group’s build to a Morricone-esque taxi drive through a maze of Kolkata backstreets of the mind is irresistible.

A raucous found-sound street scene introduces the album’s acerbically gorgeous fourth nocturne, a mini-suite inspired by Raga Yaman, a piece for sundown. Mittal’s airy, microtone-infused lines over Okazaki’s spare, bristling incisions, a couple of bracing crescendos and persistent modal eeriness scream calmly for the repeat button.

The well-known Raga Jinjoti serves as the catalyst for the amiable final nocturne, a funky romp that’s the closest thing to straight-up postbop here, although once again, Mittal works the rhythmic/misterioso dialectic for all it’s worth.

The final street scene has a great backstory. Mittal’s Kolkata neighbor was a security guard who had plenty of time to practice his homemade shennai oboe, made out of “PVC pipe with drilled finger holes, utilized a metal cup as the bell, and was played with a double reed. The timbre was raw, buzzy and completely outside of any tuning system. His playing was a reminder to me that music and creativity do not need to be bound by rules: they are innate to our spirit as humans,” Mittal explains in his liner notes. His shift between calmly pulsing energy, aching modalities and a coy deviation at the end of the tune perfectly summarize his individualistic, boundary-defying, resolutely melodic approach, Assuming that best-of-2021 jazz album polls are still happening at the end of the year, it’s a good bet we’ll see this one on a bunch of them.

The Darkest, Most Magical Hours of Last Weekend’s 24-Hour Raga Marathon

Arguably the most stunning moment at last weekend’s 24-hour raga marathon staged by the Brooklyn Raga Massive happened at about 6:30 in the morning. Sarod player Camila Celin was about halfway into a relatively rare late-night raga, choosing her spots with grace and restraint. Before her set, she’d told the audience – most of them sprawled out on the floor – that this wasn’t the first time she’d played a show after staying up all night. She marveled at the kind of life-changing “wedge of light” a performer can access when running on fumes and no sleep. Meanwhile, tabla player Hiren Chate provided kinetic, intricate contrast while Celin hung back, eyes closed, clearly in the place she’d wanted to find.

Then Chate responded to a couple of gently bending sarod riffs with a sudden, steady stream of emphatic eighth notes. Beyond simple contrast, tabla players simply don’t do that. Celin smiled but didn’t respond immediately – the crowd had to wait until she picked up the pace from a lingering poignancy to a tersely triumphant crescendo out.

That wasn’t the only deliciously unexpected moment during prime time. Because the Indian raga repertoire is associated with specific times of day, the marathon offered a rare opportunity to see material that’s seldom performed, especially here in the U.S. So the wee hours were especially enticing, even with the question of whether there would be trains to get the audience there (as it turned out, there basically weren’t). For those who might wonder what after-hours bar would stay open after daybreak to get the rest of this show in, all this happened at the downstairs auditorium at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea.

Through the rest of the night and into the morning, there was imaginative interplay, unorthodox instrumentation and innovative arrangements of centuries-old melodies, which makes sense considering that the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s agenda is to take Indian classical music to new places. The heavy hitters they’d brought in from India played during the day: this was the kids’ table, the place all the big paradigm shifts are going to come from.

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio played the 4 AM set, which was all about camaraderie and calm, purposeful exploration. Guitarist Rez Abbasi – the marathon’s most marathon performer- took his time with lingering, frequently uneasy lines while Mittal wove flurries of postbop jazz, then the two would switch roles, giving each other plenty of space. Meanwhile, drummer Alex Ritz used the whole of the kit, slicing and dicing tabla riffs on his snare or his hardware. It was a prime example of how fertile terrain Indian music can be for great creative musicians.

Trumpeter Aaron Shragge was the first to get a wee-hours raga, often characterized by the biting, chromatic confluence of Indian music and the Middle East. He began his set with an uneasily modulated shakuhachi solo before Abbasi joined him, again alternating between similarly tremoloing, terse, moody phrases and more complex clusters. Switching to trumpet, Shragge hinted at a fanfare – or a call to arms – but never quite went there, leveraging the suspense with Amir ElSaffar-class intensity.

As the first rays of sun beamed gently on the horizon, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and tabla player Ehren Hanson evoked friendly birdsong and then a warmly cantabile, legato greeting to the day. As the Sunday sun rose in the sky, santoor player Deepal Chodhari spun perfectly executed, endlessly circling phrases while tabla player Shiva Ghoshal chose his spots: it was the reverse image of what Celin and Chate had done a couple of hours earlier. There seemed to be more original composition in her hour onstage: cell-like Philip Glassine phrases and a long, Japanese-tinged interlude. There was still an hour to go after that, but these days, a New Yorker has to seize every moment available while the trains are actually running.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive, whose rotating cast of members includes most of these artists, play every Wednesday at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St.(at Washington Ave) in Ft Greene; cover is $15, and the closest train is the 2 to Bergen St. This week’s show, on Nov 1 at 8:30 PM features singer Vignesh Ravichandran with violinist Bala Skandan and mridungam player Sriram Raman, followed by the Massive’s legendary jam session. You never know who’s going to turn up.

A Rivetingly Fun Set by Aakash Mittal’s Awaz Trio Saturday Night in Brooklyn

Midway through his set Saturday night at the Firehouse Space, alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal explained that the spring-wound, tersely tuneful compositions he’d been playing with his Awaz Trio reflected themes he’d explored during a year’s intense study on scholarship in Calcutta. Which triggered a sonic treasure hunt: where was he hiding the raga riffs? There’d already been a couple of moments where those were obvious, one where guitarist Travis Reuter worked familiar variations against a central note, another where Mittal echoed the otherworldly microtones of one of his mentors, the great Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the big takeaway from this show was how much fun three outside-the-box thinkers can have using centuries-old Indian classical melodies as a springboard for jazz improvisation.

Mittal represents a newer generation of creative musicians whose work resists categorization – in the same fearless spirit as the older generation of Wadada Leo Smith et al. So this kind of unorthodox lineup – sax, guitar and drums – is right up Mittal’s alley, with Reuter and drummer Alex Ritz on the same page throughout their roughly hourlong set. Interestingly, the bandleader served less as fuel for the fire than calm anchor amidst Reuter’s majestic washes and pointillistic eighth-note volleys, and Ritz’s artfully syncopated attack on the traps. Mittal’s compositions typically came more or less full circle after all sorts of unexpected tangents, to a catchy hook that might or might have been Indian. Classical music from that part of the world owes its perennial popularity to the fact that there’s no harmony, only melody: it makes sense that tunes that survive for millennia are easy to sing along to.

The performance slowly coalesced out of dreamy, rainy-day sonics with a hint of the wary, otherworldly microtones that Mittal would tantalize the crowd with from time to time. The trio hit an irrepressibly riff-driven strut into misty, Messiaenic guitar atmospherics overhead that vanished when Reuter began a long, bubbly series of eighth and sixteenth-note runs, then diverging from straight-up rhythm. Meanwhile, Ritz methodically expanded the perimeter. With his lithely leaping accents, Mittal brought the music all the way back around, running through Reuter’s staggered raindrops against Ritz’s funky, snappy syncopation and surprise solo drum interlude.

Their second number was an artful development from the simplest ingredients: an insistent pedal note, then a vamp and finally a riff, Mittal handing methodically to Reuter and then parsing the rhythm sparsely and judiciously. Reuter echoed that approach with a more spiky attack. Foreshadowing what they’d do later, they took a split-second pause and then brought back the original pulse, Ritz driving it with a methodically crescendoing, altered trip-hop groove.

A darkly ambered blues-based tune built a hauntingly shady atmosphere, in a JD Allen vein, Mittal’s austere minor-key phrases stern and mournful as Reuter provided acidically jangly ambience and Ritz prowled and bulldozed around them. It wasn’t hard to imagine Allen’s trio with Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums doing the exact same thing.

Ritz brought a thunderous rumble from across distant plains to an uneasily enveloping guitar/sax duet. Reuter’s decision to use his sustain pedal to build an awestruck, cathedral-like ambience held the audience rapt and hushed. Then it was Ritz’s turn to open his hi-hat, use his mallets and stir a cauldron of whooshing gong resonance behind Mittal’s pensive, woundedly minimalist blues lines. The night’s final number featured Mittal’s leaping phrases over an acidically circular choral pattern from Reuter as Ritz brought back the shuffling, funk-inflected trap groove that shifted on a dime into a graceful, almost gamelanesque polyrhythms. As a full house of spectators wafted away into the slush and ice outside, the tall, striking raven-haired beauty who’d been sitting in the second row put it best: “We’re all high on the music!”