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!”