Tenor saxophonist George Brooks and electric bassist Kai Eckhardt share a vast universe of sound, from classical Hindustani music and jazz to blues and R&B. Their latest project, George Brooks and Kai Eckhardt’s Tangential Experience, expands their sonic purview exponentially with Egyptian pianist Osam Ezzeldin, Brazilian drummer Celso Alberti, and special guest vocalist Mahesh Kale, a master of classical Hindustani and semi-classical Maharashtrian styles.
More often heard on far-flung stages around the world than at home, the Berkeley neighbors Brooks and Eckhardt perform Wednesday at Freight & Salvage, a concert that highlights what might be their most important connection.
“Kai is a great ally on a human, spiritual and musical level,” Brooks says. “We live near each other. We have sons the exact same age at Berkeley High. We’re colleagues in fatherhood and as world traveling musicians.”
Born in Germany to a Liberian father and German mother, Eckhardt came to the US in the mid-80s to study at Berklee College of Music. Upon Eckhardt’s graduation, guitar legend John McLaughlin promptly recruited him for a trio with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu, an ensemble that recorded the classic 1990 album “Live at the Royal Albert Hall.” Not long afterwards Eckhardt met Brazilian-born poet Regina Camargo while performing with the trio at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont, and he ended up settling in Berkeley when they got married in 1992.
A high profile gig with drummer Billy Cobham kept him out on the road for several years, and for the past decade he toured widely on jam band circuit with the recently disbanded Garaj Mahal, a world groove combo that combined funk, early ‘70s Miles Davis fusion, Indian grooves and the rich harmonic vocabulary of modern jazz. Since the Garaj Mahal’s breakup, Eckhardt has been focusing on his own band Zeitgeist, which features Egyptian pianist Osam Ezzeldin, who recently moved from Boston to San Francisco.
“He’s the new kid on the block,” Brooks says. “He got a full scholarship to attend Berklee, and was able to get his citizenship on a track for artists of incredibly ability. He was working and living in Turkey where he met Zakir, and he came to me and Kai through that connection. He grew up hearing a lot of the sounds of the Middle East and he’s amazing with odd time signatures, a supremely dynamic player and very nice guy.”
Brooks musical relationship with Eckhardt really took off when he brought the bassist into his seminal Indo-jazz ensemble Summit with the superlative percussion tandem of trap master Steve Smith and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. They’ve continued to collaborate in various settings, drawn together by convenient geography and aesthetic concepts that “connect indirectly in some ways, but are very functional,” Eckhardt says.
“McLaughlin and Gurtu were working on original music, not Indian per se, but heavily colored by Indian music. I graduated from Berklee in jazz performance and was always into R&B and funk, and really had nothing to do with Indian music, though I did learn some. Like McLaughlin, George was another Westerner who had actually taken formal training with an Indian master. So we could communicate, and we developed our own type of music. I understood Konnakol, the vocalization that mostly comes from tabla. When you study different styles and you sit down and write from your heart it turns into its own thing.”
In Tangential Experience, a moniker inspired by Dore Stein’s invaluable, long-running world music show on KALW (91.7 FM), Eckhardt and Brooks have created a wide-open setting to explore original compositions laced with extended passages of improvisation. Don’t be surprised if a jazz standard or two gets tossed into the mix. At the group’s last performance at Yoshi’s, Brooks brought the lovely Billy Eckstine ballad “I Want To Talk About You,” a tune associated with John Coltrane.
“I want to find a way to get an Indian angle on some of those standards,” says Brooks, who also performs at Yoshi’s June 23-24 with Larry Coryell Earthquake.
Daniel Meza is taping the two-night stand as part of a documentary on the pioneering jazz guitarist, who helped usher in the jazz/rock fusion movement in the late 1960s. Coryell and Brooks have collaborated widely over the past decade, but usually in concert with Indian musicians, like Hari Prasad Churasia or in Bombay Jazz with Ronu Majumdar on bansuri and Vijay Ghate on tabla.
“Larry’s going to be exploring some of his early fusion stuff, material he almost never plays,” Brooks says. “So this will be something different.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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