Garaj Mahal

Mondo Garaj

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Recorded from 2000 to 2001 but finally released a year later as the band's first studio effort (after three live discs), Mondo Garaj captures Garaj Mahal in its relative infancy. Keyboardist Eric Levy had recently joined, and although he's prominent on these songs, his contributions have grown considerably since. In fact, only two songs from this album appeared on any of the subsequent live discs. But with musicians of the caliber and experience of bassist Kai Eckhardt, drummer Alan Hertz, and Fareed Haque on guitars, there is nothing tentative about this recording. Sounding like a combination of Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in their '70s heyday, Garaj's jazz-rock fusion requires chops and innovation to stay interesting and avoid aimless noodling. They succeed, and even though the primarily instrumental cuts average seven minutes each, they never become repetitious or overstay their welcome. All four musicians are extraordinarily talented, but each adds his own instrumental prowess without hogging the spotlight. Not surprisingly, Haque's guitar, especially his "sitar guitar," takes center stage and infuses an East Indian feel to songs like "Beware My Ethnic Heart." But he leaves plenty of solo space for Levy, whose fleet-fingered synthesizer work -- reminiscent of Jan Hammer -- trades licks with speed and precision on the opening funky workout "Mondo Garaj." DJ Fly Agaric and DJ Roto add turntable scratching, loops, and samples to keep the sound contemporary, but this is really a showcase for the jaw-dropping talents of the four bandmembers. The band gels on all the tracks, but shows what it can do on "Hindi Gumbo," which features Haque's acoustic sitar/guitar solo. Nothing takes the place of seeing the band pull this off live, but Mondo Garaj provides an snapshot of how these four gifted individuals -- each of whom could be a band leader in his own right -- combine into a fine-tuned unit.

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