Voices in the Garaj

Garaj Mahal introduces new drummer and new album on latest tour

For instrumental Jazz/Fusion/Jam quartet Garaj Mahal, the next logical frontier to explore would be to add vocals to its repertoire. Although the band has utilized vocal melodies as a textural component over the years, the members have never actually sung in the strictest definition of the term.

That’s all changed with the release of Garaj Mahal’s seventh album, More Mr. Nice Guy, coming just a scant 18 months after its last album, wOOt. As GM guitarist Fareed Haque explains, this wouldn't have been possible without the recent acquisition of drummer Sean Rickman.

“We’ve had some tunes that had some singing on them but none of us would ever deign to call ourselves real singers, where Sean is a real singer,” Haque says from his Chicago home. “We had a few tunes with vocals in them, but he showed up with his own tunes. Garaj Mahal is a democracy and about letting everyone express what they do; it’s a bit of a collective in that sense and that’s what Sean brought to the table and it was a real natural fit for us. Sean is crazy and nuts and that’s good for Garaj, because we’re a goofy band and we want someone with just as much personality and fire to keep up with the rest of us weirdos.”

It was Rickman’s arrival that spurred the band to get busy on a follow-up to wOOt so quickly. With the departure of founding drummer Alan Hertz two years ago and the installation of Rickman in Garaj Mahal’s lineup (Haque, bassist Kai Everhardt, keyboardist Eric Levy), the band felt some urgency to develop Rickman’s identity within the group.

“We wanted to establish Sean’s artistic presence; his drumming, his voice, his compositions,” Haque says. “It was a very creative period, because when you introduce a new member, you write new music. It wasn’t Sean Rickman trying to imitate Alan Hertz; he was going to bring his own unique magic. We felt like we were ready because we’d written so much new music. I write so much music, I feel like I want to be able to do a couple of albums a year.”

Hertz’s defection from the band after wOOt’s release had nothing to do with dissatisfaction with or dissension within Garaj Mahal. Like every member of the group, Hertz has a number of outside projects competing for his attention and he merely decided to refocus his efforts in other directions.

“Alan was getting increasingly involved with his home studio and he was traveling with Scott Henderson and I think in general was a little disenchanted with the road,” Haque says. “We parted amicably, we’re all on good terms — such good terms that Garaj Mahal did an album called Discovery, featuring the Moog guitar, and Alan mixed most of that in his studio.”

Although Haque admits that GM made a few tweaks along the creative path in conceiving and executing More Mr. Nice Guy, he says that the process was essentially very similar to their previous studio albums.

“We did tailor some tunes to Sean’s drumming, not in any overt way, but listening to the way he plays inspires you to write certain kinds of music,” Haque says. “It happened pretty intuitively. I did demo a few tunes so that everybody could hear them and then we went in and cut them and did a little pre-production, which was fun. It wasn’t just the huge clusterfuck that a recording session usually is. It was really smooth. We made a record and had a blast.”

If there’s a new watchword for Garaj Mahal, it might be “cohesion.” Although the band still incorporates an almost impossibly broad diversity of musical styles into their presentation, the quartet has found fresh and interesting ways to weave them all into a more consistent and linear sonic tapestry. To that end, More Mr. Nice Guy is a culmination of a number of goals that Garaj Mahal had from the outset.

“One was to create a space for the Moog guitar, since that’s a big part of what I’m doing now, and of course to allow Sean to shine,” Haque says. “And I think we’re at the point now where we’re less overtly World music-y and integrating those elements more into everything we do. The band’s sound is a tad more cohesive, maybe. For us, one of the luxuries of being a touring band, not just a studio band, is that we’re on the road and we’re always writing music. So when it’s time to do an album, the four composers have written these 16 tunes, so let’s choose 10. It’s pretty effortless in that regard.”

With all four members contributing songs, it might seem as though there would be a lot of room for conflict, but Garaj Mahal’s democratic ethic precludes most of the friction.

“We know each other and we’ve gone through all of our fights, so there’s not a whole lot of fighting to do in the studio,” Haque says with a laugh. “I guess we have one set of principles which is everybody contributes an equal number of tunes and the composer produces his own tunes. It’s really simple: ‘This is how this is going to go. I’m the boss. My tune.’ And everybody’s competent and makes good decisions, so it works out pretty well.”

When presented with an array of possible ways to describe More Mr. Nice Guy, Haque settles for evolutionary.

“I think you can hear me figuring out the Moog guitar on this record, you can hear Sean testing the ropes, as it were,” he says. “I think it’s an evolution but I think it’s a new beginning for the band. When you have a band that’s as unique as Garaj Mahal with Alan Hertz, as soon as you change that out, it’s a whole new thing. So we’re looking for those possibilities and so far it’s been a blast.”

GARAJ MAHAL performs Thursday at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.