Garaj Mahal shows its chops, forgets the groove

Garaj Mahal at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room, Tues., Sept. 23

The full audience at the recent Garaj Mahal performance was peppered with well-known local drummers, bassists, guitarists and radio deejays, all eager to hear what the four highly touted members of the jazz/funk/world fusion jam band were going to deliver.

All in all, it was a show of technical facility, dense with relentless virtuosity. And it was there, in spades, all night long. If you came for that, you were likely very pleased. It was, however, too much at times for some dancers and listeners—sort of like too much chocolate.

Consider the band’s pedigree: bassist Kai Eckhardt graduated with honors from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, and had stints with the John McLaughlin Trio and jazz drummer Billy Cobham’s International Quartet. New Garaj drummer Sean Rickman has played with heavy hitters like George Clinton, George Duke and fusion quintet Dapp Theory. And jazz/classical guitarist Fareed Haque has performed or recorded with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Sting and Edgar Meyer, while keyboardist Eric Levy studied under Haque.

The group was eager to show off its chops with opener “Poodle Factory” from 2003’s Mondo Garaj, featuring Eckhardt and Haque on funky, looping vocals sporadically popped in over a canvas of blistering solos traded off over an underlying funk groove.

“Hotel,” from Garaj’s latest album, wOOt, was another funky jam loaded with flurries of notes flying alternately out of all four musicians. Colorful psychedelic patterns projected onto the curtains behind the band conjured up a ‘70s throwback feeling.

Rickman sang a couple of songs including The Police’s “When the World Is Running Down.” A little Caribbean influence got into the music in a song reminiscent of jazz standard “St. Thomas,” albeit funked-up and complete with requisite extended solos from the keys, guitar and bass.

At certain points dancers just stood still on the dance floor, unable to groove to the busy-ness of the music. Unlike deep, in-the-pocket, bass-driven ‘70s funk, Garaj’s 21st-century version—while packed with blazing, testosterone-fueled, technical flair—lacks the simple soulfulness that would have been, at the least, a refreshing change-up.