Aakash Mittal and Feveband Push Jazz Boundaries

Will Roane, Staff Writer

Under the dim illumination of a bare lightbulb in the corner of the bar upstairs at The Feve on Sunday, Nov. 22, Feveband and special guest saxophonist Aakash Mittal began their first set with an erratic melody, jerking and bobbing to the rhythms as fingers flew to get to the notes on time.

Throughout the night, the band amazed a crowd of College and Conservatory students alike with music that eschewed classification, with each band member offering a musical palette that seemed to at once remind one of home and of places never seen or heard.

With songs highlighting thework of distinctive Asian-American composers as well as Mittal himself, the music on display at this particular show was certainly eclectic, if not exceptional. Mittal and Feveband began their first set frantically and did not let their energy level drop throughout the entire night.

A great contributing factor to the vigor of the group’s performance most certainly had little to do with Mittal at all — Feveband proved that it is a jazz tour de force ready to bend the airwaves into any shape. With Conservatory juniors Austin Vaughn and Jackson Hill holding down the drums and bass, all Mittal and Rafiq Bhatia, College senior and Feveband leader and guitarist, had to do was soar over the rhythmic space they provided.

“I enjoyed hearing such powerful drumming in a room as intimate as The Feve,” said double-degree sophomore Matt Gold. “Mittal’s improvisations were fluid and always moving forward.”

Though the music certainly danced across a tightrope between jazz and Indian music, the discourse between the two created something unique and separate, avoiding straight definition as either form of music, or even of “fusion” — as most jazz that incorporates other genres (including world music) is generally classified.

“It’s not really jazz or Indian music,” Mittal said of the compo- sitions the band chose to play that night. “It’s like musical acculturation. Jazz itself is a music of acculturation,” he added, explaining that jazz as a genre has absorbed aspects of other kinds of music from its very inception.

Particularly to Mittal and Bhatia, whose own compositions reflect Indian as well as East African heritage, the distinction between their approach and the approach of musicians purely out to make “fusion” is paramount.

“It’s not exoticism — it’s not about pointed shoes or saris or incense,” said Bhatia as he put away his guitar after the show. “It’s about our composite identities.”

Indeed, with the start of the second set, that composite identity began to take shape, with the mosaic of Aakash Mittal’s artistry emanating from his shiny saxophone like words whispered in a language you once knew, but have now forgotten. His tone has astonishing character for such a young player — dripping, screaming and crooning from his horn, with each note redefining the context of the last.

Exemplifying both Mittal in his own element and Feveband’s ability to adapt to new material, the group performed the first three tracks from Mittal’s new album Videsh in a mini-opus of interpretations of the saxophonist’s experience in traveling to Kolkarta, India earlier this year.

The rendition of Mittal’s inspired compositions began with the haunting unaccompanied saxophone intro of “Subah,” moved to the frenzied syncopation of “The Street,” and topped off with the ominous “Om Shanti,” in which Hill and Vaughn got a chance to show their chops, with the bassist exhibiting unparalleled melodic bowing, and the drummer playing cymbals with light care, a far cry from his sheer volume during the first set. In addition, Bhatia played the complicated chord changes laid out by Mittal with ease, adding flourishes to Mittal’s soloing and offering up his own illustrious solos, making one wonder how a guitar could sound so otherworldly. The importance of this music did not come from the musicians’ virtuosity, but rather from their ability to synthesize seemingly disparate types of music.

“It’s like creating a different vocabulary that you can draw from, while maintaining that old way of saying things,” Mittal said. It seems that the music that lit up The Feve that night represented a willingness to boldly create a new vocabulary — to learn and then defy ideals and traditions. Whether you’re Aakash Mittal or not, the circumstances that led to your identity need not define it for a second longer than you want them to — the pen is in your hand; you can write it all down and then burn the paper if you so choose. Perhaps, like Aakash Mittal and Feveband, you will find that something stronger will rise from the ashes.