The numbers had strong, meaty solos in good jazz tradition by all members of the quartet at the Refuge concert

He works well blending jazz with other genres of music including Carnatic or Hindustani, but Aman Mahajan studied jazz at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston and it is his natural habitat. Last weekend at B Flat bar, he presented his band in a concert he called “Refuge”, playing his compositions “influenced by various global cultures” as the blurb put it, yet pure jazz as his education at Berklee would lead one to expect from him.

His band comprised himself on piano (digital keyboard really, but playing purely in the acoustic piano setting), Mishko M’ba on electric bass guitar, and Jeoraj George on drums, and they were joined on soprano and tenor saxophones by Matt Littlewood.

Not too long ago I mistakenly said Mahajan, Littlewood and M’ba were all based in Pondicherry on the basis of an introduction of his accompanists by Krishna Kumar of Temple Rock fame. To set the record straight, of this quartet, Mahajan is Bangalore-based, George comes in from Chennai, and both M’ba and Littlewood are from Pondicherry (or more properly, Auroville).

The concert might have been even longer than the two hours without an interval that it lasted if it hadn’t been for the rain that evening in Bangalore. Although it forced them to start late, basically to give intending members of the audience more time to reach the venue, it clearly didn’t dampen their ardour nor that of those who had made it to the concert. Except for the brief opening piece “Where Is It?”, which Mahajan described as an invocation, all the other numbers had strong, meaty solos in good jazz tradition by all the members of the quartet. The ten compositions played were for the most part in brisk or fast-medium tempos, one or two of them being quite fast-paced, and were nominally meant to end with the title number, ‘Refuge’. As it happened (how could it have been otherwise?), there was an encore, ‘Sundance’, which, along with the eighth number, ‘Movie Night’, was one of the faster-paced pieces.

Mahajan’s music is, despite the brisk tempo at which it is mostly played, quite deep in its melodic structure, often reflective. He evidently took composition very seriously during his Berklee studies, and the ideas behind his work, as reflected in the titles or themes of the pieces played, are deep. They range from ‘Load-shedding’, a blues for India, to Sitafalmandi, written for Hyderabad and named after a neighbourhood in that city, taking in along the way a phrase taken from one of T.S. Eliot’s poems, Talking of Michelangelo.

All of them had solo improvisations by Mahajan himself, M’ba, and Littlewood, the last mostly playing soprano sax, although on the opening piece and ‘Load-shedding’ he deployed his tenor sax, on which he soloed on the latter piece. On soprano sax, he would inevitably invite comparison with the legendary John Coltrane, who made it fashionable in modern jazz but whose followers on the instrument have tended to sound somewhat weak. Suffice it to say that Littlewood acquitted himself creditably on this instrument, much more full-blooded than many of its famous users.

M’ba was in raging form on the bass, adding to the usual armoury of soloists on the instrument the technique of striking the strings and soundboard with his thumb, a trick probably first used on the guitar by the American jazzman Wes Montgomery.

It was particularly effective when George played drum solos, the technique making for a kind of duo interaction between two “percussion” instruments.

The themes of the tunes were mostly rendered by Mahajan and Littlewood before the solos began, in some cases being preceded by a solo piano intro by Mahajan.

Mahajan played the piano with effortless ease, taking very intricate solos that explored the possibilities of the themes from which they took off. And George was tasteful, understated as the best jazz drummers are.

All four musicians were in inspired mood, leading to evident dissatisfaction among the audience with the concert having only one encore and provoking demands from some listeners for “One more” and, in a bout of one-upmanship, “Two more” from someone in my neighbourhood.