Friday, August 9, 2013

Aakash Mittal: From Denver to Kolkata, Jazz Crosses Continents and a Big "Ocean"

Aakash Mittal Quartet at the Icehouse
© Andrea Canter

Aakash Mittal
I first encountered Aakash Mittal when he invited me to review his debut recording in 2009. The young saxophonist from Denver gave that disc the rather hesitant title, Possible Beginnings. Such humility is characteristic of Mittal. Now, at the ripe age of 28, he's releasing his third full-length recording, Ocean, as he prepares for a ten-month “sabbatical” studying traditional music in India via a grant from the American Institute of Indian Studies. Since that first interview in 2009, I’ve enjoyed many conversations with Aakash as well as some live performances – he’s now performed three times on the Dakota’s Late Night series, at the 2010 Twin Cities Jazz Festival, and last weekend at the Icehouse. Each conversation, each performance reveals a rapidly maturing artist who continuously seeks to incorporate the traditions of his Indo-American heritage with the idioms of modern jazz and the beauty and mystery of the American West. He brings it all together on Ocean, which he recorded with his long-standing Colorado-based quartet and special guest, fellow Coloradian trumpeter Ron Miles.

Andrew Trim with Devin Drobka
But perhaps most interesting of all is Aakash’s bold move to tour in support of Ocean with none of its musicians. Wanting to try a new sound, Mittal put together a quartet with musicians from or tied to Chicago, where he himself has spent a lot of time visiting his India-born father’s family. Discovering musicians on this branch of the family tree led him to pursue traditional Indian music, including several trips to India to study and perform.

Kurt Schweitz
Touring the Midwest to support Ocean, Aakash gathered a new ensemble of Kurt Schweitz (bass), Devin Drobka (drums) and Andrew Trim (guitar). No trumpet. One of the most impressive aspects of the Twin Cities performances last weekend was the manner in which Mittal and his cohorts translated the original quintet arrangements into a one-horn ensemble. One of the stand-out aspects of Ocean is the interplay and harmonization among Mittal and Miles. How can that work with only one horn? At the Icehouse gig in particular, the collaboration among Mittal and guitarist Trim was such that the listener still sensed two-horn harmony – two distinct voices working in tandem and in counterpoint. It was still a distinctly different sound than on the recording, but it was similarly evocative, challenging, and ultimately transcendent.

I wouldn’t mind hearing this music with Ron Miles or another virtuosic trumpeter. And I wouldn’t mind hearing this music again with just the new quartet. Most of all, I am very eager to hear the next phase of Aakash Mittal’s music based on his months of intensive study of afternoon and early evening ragas and Indian saxophone techniques. It won’t really resemble India, Colorado or Coltrane; it will become the next music of Aakash Mittal.