"It's very rare," alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa said while back-introducing the song "Abhogi" at Royce Hall on Saturday night, further describing the piece as a South Indian raga that was also performed in the Hindustani tradition. "And of course we played it in neither genre," he added with a smirk.
It was far from the first musical restriction disregarded on the night, which was presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA. Over more than two hours with two different bands, Mahanthappa expanded on the Indian music explorations of Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and even the Beatles, further blurring the lines between global music traditions for an evening that often defied comparison.
The night began with Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition, which featured the Indian American saxophonist in a trio of Karachi-born (and Southern California raised) guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss.
With Weiss playing a sort of exploded drum set with tablas at his feet -- and sometimes switching from one to the other within a single song -- the group often left any familiar sounds of jazz and its fusion with Indian classical music behind. With Abbasi's fluid guitar as his shadow, Mahanthappa embarked on long, wildly inventive runs that spiraled into a seemingly limitless array of directions. In a fitting tribute, the group played a cover of Ravi Shankar's "Vandanaa Trayee" that set aside any fixed time signature or melody as Weiss' tablas drove the song's sprawling evolution.
It was intense, richly complicated stuff, but the results could be exhilarating. During the restless "I.I.T." (named after the Indian Institute of Technology, after all), Weiss unfolded from his tablas and returned to his kit, barely missing a beat as he accelerated into a drum-and-bass groove with Mahanthappa locked in a low, repeated churn behind him. As the rhythm gathered with intensity with Abbasi's serpentine guitar lines, the song's infectious drive underscored the connection between Goa, India, and electronic trance music.
Switching to his new band Gamak for the second set, Mahanthappa and Weiss were joined by Francois Moutin on acoustic bass and guitarist David Fiuczynski. A veteran of the unfettered, downtown New York City scene, Fiuczynski added a blend of prog-rock and funk to "Waiting Is Forbidden," which twisted through an array of tempos and changes behind Mahanthappa's coiled melodies.
Later, Fiuczynski snuck a knowing nod to "Tomorrow Never Knows" into his solo during the shape-shifting "Wrathful Wisdom," and his switch to fretless guitar on his double-necked instrument added a slippery, almost slack-key accent to "Abhogi." The song culminated in a playful face-off between Moutin and the ever-inventive Weiss, who at one point may have sprouted a third arm as the duel escalated.
Like fellow fusion explorer McLaughlin, Mahanthappa's mind-scrambling mix of speed and technique became almost oppressive at times, but the moving "Ballad for Troubled Times" found him reaching somewhere deeper. Dipping into a few raw, impassioned creaks as his solo weaved through the lower register and back again, Mahanthappa found a beautiful melancholy as his tone reached across the auditorium in a turn that earned a few yelps from the crowd.
Before things could become too settled, Weiss pounded into the burning rock drive of "Majesty of the Blues," a bracing closing shot that featured a metallic churn from Fiuczynski and a howling lead by Mahanthappa. It split the difference between Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Stooges and, of course, never entirely sounded like either.