NUVO Interview: Garaj Mahal's Fareed Haque 

As he spells out in the following interview, Chicago-area guitarist Fareed Haque is rather busy: touring behind a new album by fusion-jazz band Garaj Mahal, working up a new release by Flat Earth Ensemble, teaching jazz and classical guitar at Northern Illinois University.

When I reach Fareed Haque by phone at his home on a Thursday morning, he instructs his son to continue practising limericks while he does an interview. He was working on the following:

Fareed Haque: There was a young lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
They got back from the ride
With her inside
And a smile on the face of the tiger

NUVO: What new approaches did you take on the latest Garaj Mahal record?

Haque: One of the biggest things that was new was that we had one of the historic studios to work in, with amazing gear — amazing amps, amazing keyboards, amazing guitars, amazing microphones. And an amazing room that, of course, is very famous for many historic recordings, including “Songs in the Key of Life,” Rick James’ “Superfreak,” Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Déjà vu,” many Santana recordings. Just many many many famous recordings were done in this room. So we had the luxury of really being able to create sonically one of the best sounding albums that we ever made, or that could be made, because it’s sort of the tope of the top, the cream of the cream, in terms of the studio. So we were able to use a lot of recording techniques and approaches to recording that were not even available to us before. So the record sounds just amazing I think.

NUVO: Do you find it inspiring as a player to be in that sort of space?

Haque: Absolutely, absolutely. It’s definitely inspiring. I think the other advantage is that we actually had time, because we were all together in the studio; whereas, in many other cases, because of touring schedules and studio schedules, we had to kind of rush in and rush out, here and there. Here we had some leisure time to really play our best. So the recording is great, the production is really great, but we also got that chance to just play. You don’t get as much of that in studio albums sometimes, where the cats are together for days just jamming.

NUVO: It’s a bit of a challenge for you guys to get together, to practice and record?

Haque: It is definitely a challenge for us to that. Everybody is such a good musician and so well-schooled that we can learn new music without having to play it, usually. We can sing it and talk about it and practice it on our own, and then run it at soundcheck and pretty much get it in one or two tries. But even if you get all the notes, you still have to get in the spirit and the groove and the vibe of the music. There’s no way around it: Rehearsal and time away from an audience, and playing together, is a good thing. So we struggle with that, but we can make the best of it. There’s definitely a lot of spontaneity in Garaj Mahal, and that’s one of the reasons why. It’s spontaneous because we have no freaking clue what were doing half the time.

NUVO: You just signed to Owl Studios, both the band and yourself. What sort of opportunities do you think that will offer you?

Haque: Owl Studio has been, so far, unbelievably together, in terms of being traditionally-minded as a label. And I mean traditionally not in the short-term, but in the long-term, in the same way that Blue Note — the old Blue Note — or Riverside or Atlantic had a stable of jazz musicians that they cultivated and developed over years. It seems like Owl Studios has the same kind of commitment to a few artists they believe in. The more they make an investment in me and my project, the more I make an investment in them and the label, and the two aspects of the arrangement — the company and the artist — start to work together. In addition to being really in touch with the traditional approach to marketing an artist, they’re also totally on the pulse of the new innovations that are coming along, so they’re very traditional and progressive, which is something I always value. I consider myself a very traditional musician with a very progressive and forward-looking, modern point of view, and I think they echo that in terms of their business model. And so far, it’s been a real success. I think we’re already into the second printing of “Woot,” and the record hasn’t even been released yet.

NUVO: Is it fairly rare to your mind to find a record label that’s both innovative and also cultivates artists?

Haque: I think it’s absolutely rare. I think, of course, the record industry is in such a state right now that there are a lot of new models that are getting experimented with. And I think Owl is, in my mind, at the forefront of these innovators.

NUVO: How so?

Haque: In the sense that they’re really exploiting and embracing the potential of the Internet and different ways in which the record can be marketed and promoted. It’s looking like Owl Studios will have a marketplace presence at all of our Garaj Mahal gigs. So you’ll go to a Garaj Mahal gig and there will be an Owl Studios merchandise booth with pictures and posters and, of course, CDs. And in addition, on the Internet, they’re marketing the record in many different ways. It’ll be available all across the Internet in many different stores, and they’ve agreed to hire an Internet marketing publicist, who is going to do nothing but social networking — Facebook, MySpace, Twitter. And we’ll take advantage of the grass-roots approach that the jam band scene has developed. So we have one of the strongest jazz publicists, Michael Bloom, involved with the more traditional jazz publicity and marketing, as well as the underground jam band approach to marketing, which is usually Internet-based, and social networking-based, and street team-based. So all those things are kind of working together to spearhead sort of two-pronged approach to marketing this music. It’s innovative and really timely.

NUVO: So speaking of traditional jazz, do you think jam band music and fusion still has a questionable reputation in the traditional jazz community, or do you think that’s been changing over the last few years?

Haque: I think it’s changing. Certainly not all jam bands play jazz, but all jazz bands do jam. So in a sense, the jazz band is the original jam band. And I think that when you look back to Duke Ellington and Count Basie, you see that those were really jam bands, in the best sense of the word. They showed up at the gig, they played great music and everybody danced. And the music changed every night; especially with Duke, it changed every night! There were no written arrangements and it was very spontaneous. Duke just let the cats play because they were all great players. I think the problem evolved in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s when the idea that cheaply-produced, mass-produced music was what people used for dancing, and that serious well-intentioned music was not what people danced to, but what they sat down and listened to. That’s always been a struggle, but I think more and more, people are accepting the fact that really good players and really good music are really good to party to, once again.

I always come back to my favorite epiphany or revelation: I was at a party with a bunch of my students, 18-, 19-year-olds, and they’re listening to D’Angelo, Stevie Wonder, great music, and all this R&B and funk, some hip-hop. And then I put on “Money Jungle,” by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, a trio. And everybody was dancing, and nobody stopped dancing. People were jumping. And kids were saying to me, “Hey, what’s that?” “That’s cool. What is that?” “That is funky!” And I was like, “It’s funk from 1948, or whatever the year was.” [Ed.: 1962] And everybody was like, “Oh cool,” and went back to partying and macking on their girls and whatever.

So there was a sense that it’s really not the music but the attitude about the music that has affected the musical marketplace. And when Garaj Mahal or the Flat Earth Ensemble can go out and play Indian music in seven or funk-inspired in five, and people are still dancing, then you begin to feel that those connections of good music and good living are starting to come back together. And I think it’s a part of life; it’s not separate from life.

I think a big problem with the concert music platform is that it actively tries to separate music from life. And the best music has always come from life, not against it, not apart from it — out of social situations. All of the best R&B came from where? It came from the gospel and the church. It didn’t come from three scientists in the lab inventing music. The best classical music came from the king’s courts, where they needed music where dance was involved, particularly in the amazing church services. So there was a social context: Every Sunday, Bach had to write some music, Haydn had to write some music. And it was going to be heard by a whole crew of people who were going to talk about the music, argue about the music; and some were going to dance to the music, if it was a social situation, or they all were going to worship to the music. The music had a social context, and then all of the great music evolved out of that social context, not out of a private situation.

Chopin wrote music not for himself, but he wrote for these living room salon concerts that he liked to give. So he would always be thinking, “Well, what am I going to write for next Thursday’s living room concert?” He didn’t even play in public; he played for his friends. So the idea of great classical music, great jazz music, great music in general coming from some ivory tower, is total crap. It always has come out of people and the interaction of people, so music has to stay in the people’s world in order for it to be good music.

NUVO: Do you find the concert music setting unsatisfying after that epiphany because there isn’t that potential for dance and as much social interaction?

Haque: Yeah, I think concert music has its place, but I think it is much less meaningful and important than critics or promoters would like it to be. The obvious advantage of a concert is that you have a thousand seats and 60 bucks a head. It has less to do with music and more to do with money. And unfortunately that still drives music in many ways. Any artist will tell you that they never have as meaningful or as profound a concert experience on a big stage as they do on a small stage; classical, jazz, rock, blues, it’s always going to be that way. It always has been. I think there are very few artists that will say, “I much prefer playing on a giant stage at the Hollywood Bowl than I do at an intimate venue with 300 people.”

Sure there’s some music that definitely needs to be listened to without a lot of noise. I think there’s a place for that. I love playing classical guitar concerts where everybody’s seated quietly and we can all hear the beauty of the actual instrument. But any more than a hundred people and you don’t really get that any more.

NUVO: Everybody in the band has a songwriting credit on the record, right?

Haque: Yeah, everybody has two songs on the record. Eight songs total.

NUVO: I’m wondering what you think each member brings to the group, in terms of compositional style.

Haque: Well, pretty simply, Kai [Eckhardt] is certainly the most mathematically-oriented composer. He usually bases his compositions — not always, but usually — on some mathematical, rhythmic formula that often comes from Indian music. Alan [Hertz] and I are more melodically-oriented composers, not to say that Kai’s tunes aren’t melodic; they’re very melodic, but their initial inspiration usually comes from a rhythmic formula. Alan and I tend to write more melodically first, and then let the form evolve that way. And Eric tends to really evoke his gospel and funk roots when he composes, so there’s a lot of that in his compositions. Alan and Eric tend to be more funk oriented, Kai tend to be more funk/fusion oriented and I tend to be more world music oriented. Though, we’re splitting hairs here; we all definitely love and listen to the same music. So I think were all the same aspect of the same vision, rather than four different visions.

NUVO: It seems like, with Eric’s pieces, it’s a bit more obvious where the inspiration is coming from. With “Uptown Tippitinias” there’s a pronounced gospel influence and “Ishmael & Issac” has that, I believe, Eastern European opening.

Haque: Well, “Ishmael & Isaac” is a song about the struggle between Ishmael, the founder of the tribes that eventually led to the religion of Islam, and Isaac, of the tribes that eventually led to the religious of Judaism. So you’ve got the Arabic sitar on top of the klezmer melody, and then it’s sort of an Arabic-fusion development of this basic klezmer idea.

NUVO: Is there a resolution in the song, then?

Haque: You’ll have to ask Eric. I don’t know. It definitely comes to a mighty climax. [Laughs.]

NUVO: Just in general, how do you balance your playing and teaching duties?

Haque: I’m pretty darn busy all of the time. It’s becoming a bit of a problem; I’m trying to get a little more balance. I’m actually taking a semester off from teaching to find a little balance, spending a little time off for myself, because I still need to have a creative life. Playing gigs and gigs and gigs is great, but it’s less creative than it is performance. And I’m still putting the finishing touches on the new Flat Earth Ensemble record, so that’s taking some time. There’s some possibilities of a documentary that I’m working on with some folks from the George Lucas foundation, so that’s going to take some time.

NUVO: That’s the soundtrack to the documentary?

Haque: No, actually that’s a documentary about the guitar, history of the guitar, or guitar-related instruments. But teaching I usually do the first couple days of the week, or Monday through Wednesday. And then I’ll do a tour on the weekends, and then come back and teach Monday through Wednesday. Without getting too deep into it, it’s pretty detailed and we have pretty massive infrastructure for organizing schedules. Thank God for gmail and our agent, who’s very organized mentally and can keep all, it seems like, 25 schedules in his head. Because there’s the four musicians and then there’s family and kids, and birthdays and anniversaries. Our agent is great at keeping all this stuff straight, and helping us keep all this stuff straight. Phil Simon at Simon Says Booking has just been wonderful at helping us find a little bit of structure and order in our life. So basically, I teach a couple days a week and then tour on the weekends. And for longer tours, I may take a week of from school and do a two-week tour — teach Monday through Wednesday, tour Thursday through the following Sunday a week later, and then teach another Monday through Wednesday, so it’s a pretty full-time schedule.

NUVO: So the show’s next Friday in Indianapolis?

Haque: You tell me, man, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s this coming Friday; it’s a week from. Because Saturday we start in Minneapolis at Fat Fest, and then we have gigs down through the Midwest, and the following weekend we’ll be passing through Indy and heading up through the Northeast somewhere. I think we end up in Harrisburg, Penn.

NUVO: You’ve got three albums of originals to work from at this point?

Haque: We have three albums of originals and probably 20 or 30 tunes that have not yet been recorded. We have a lot, lot, lot, lot of music. And so much that we haven’t learned that it becomes a little overwhelming, because we’re all pretty prolific. I have written enough music to populate Garaj Mahal and the Flat Earth Ensemble with tunes. I’m not sure how we do it, but it just keeps coming. So there’s no shortage of music, that’s for sure.

NUVO: I wanted to talk a little about the Dixon/Rhyne project. Hw did you first get involved? I think Rob said he approached you to join in on the band.

Haque: Well I think our whole connection with Owl Studios has to be traced back to Rob Dixon. I think Rob had talked to me a little bit about certain projects, and I think Rob and the folks from the label heard Garaj Mahal at 10,000 Lakes and then they were more actively courting my projects and Garaj Mahal, which is not really my project; it’s sort of a collective project. But they courted Flat Earth Ensemble and Garaj Mahal through their relationship with me. And the initial way that I got to work with Rob was through playing at the Jazz Kitchen and, of course, playing on the Dixon/Rhyne Project. And of course I was immensely honoured to even be asked to work with Melvin because of his rich history in music, and Rob just plays his ass off, so it was a great project. And I hope to do more with that project. I hope to do more touring and I hope to do more playing in a straight-ahead thing with Melvin, because I think that could be a very magical sound.

NUVO: What do you think you were able to bring to the group?

Haque: I think I played on almost everything, and in general, I think I was able to bring a modern sound and still be connected to the tradition, which is an important aspect of what I do. And certainly Rob Dixon and Melvin Rhyne are modern and traditional.

At this point in the morning phone interview, Fareed’s 5-year-old son, who had been practicing limericks when we last heard from him, offers his dad a choice of pastries for breakfast. Fareed opts to have eggs and a doughnut. He would prefer his eggs fried — instead of hard-boiled, as his son suggests — although he will accept them prepared in whatever way is easiest for his wife, the chef.

NUVO: That’s my lead for this article, by the way — how you like your eggs. People love that color.

Haque: Awesome. That’s funny. So yeah, things are good, things are full; my plate is full.

NUVO: Yeah, just to go with that same question, when you’re playing with someone like Melvin, who obviously has so much of a history and so much respect, what does it mean to innovate within a more traditional forum? Obviously you have a lot of respect for him, but maybe you don’t want to pin yourself down or constrain your work.

NUVO: What’s interesting about that is, I think so often, we confuse tradition for the young conservatives. We listen to these young, up-and-coming New York cats who say they are dedicated to the tradition. Bullshit! That is total bullshit. They’re dedicated to being conservative. But the real traditionalists, the real players who come from the tradition, are not conservative in the least. Melvin Rhyne was talking to me, and he says, “What you’ve got to do” — and think about it, this could be Melvin Seal talking, or Trey Anastasio, or Michael Kang from the String Cheese Incident — “What you’ve got to do, is you got to watch the booties of the girls, and when you’re playing the instrument, and see the booties start to shake, then you know you’ve got the right groove.” That’s as much a funk discussion as it is a traditional discussion.

Fareed chooses a danish instead of a doughnut.

NUVO: So something became traditional because, in one era, in Melvin’s era, it made the booties shake.

Haque: Exactly! So when I played some new shit, he was just like, “Aw, that’s cool! Play that new shit — that’s cool!” It doesn’t even enter his mind that there’s a limitation somewhere to what works with jazz. In his mind, if he likes it and it makes him happy, it’s good. That’s about the end of it. And I could say the same for Joe Zawinul; I could say the same for so many musicians. But then you get the younger cats who are trying to, not maintain tradition but limit growth; it’s a fundamental difference.

NUVO: And I guess Wynton Marsalis would be a prime example of that?

Haque: I don’t know, I suppose so; those are your words, not mine. In general, Wynton seems to be less interested in his later career with letting the tradition evolve and more interested with controlling the amount of innovation in jazz. As opposed to his brother, Branford, who seems to be a whole lot more open-minded, and certainly is a master at the traditions of jazz. I think it’s obvious if you look at the history — forget tradition, but let’s talk about history. If you look at the history of jazz, the greatest innovators have been the greatest masters of the form. You can’t say Trane innovated because he couldn’t quite get the bebop thing together. You can’t say Miles innovated because he just never really made it playing bebop. You can’t say that Wayne Shorter innovated with Weather Report because, well, the critics just panned his work with Miles Davis. You go on down the list; all of the greatest masters of the historical forms, forget the word tradition, were the ones who were most able, most willing, and most genuinely interested in innovation. So to try to put innovation and tradition as opposing forces is really historically incorrect. And there’s no argument, no discussion; just look at the facts.

Fareed’s son admits that he has already eaten the danish. Fareed will settle for a blueberry muffin.

NUVO: So it’s a sitar guitar when I hear anything that sounds like a sitar on the whole album?

Haque: Yeah, I call it a guistar, and it was built by Kim Schwartz.

NUVO: And the idea is that gives you a wider range of potential notes, to put it simply.

Haque: It gives the whole chromatic scale, and the possibilities of all of the chords that one can build on a guitar, with the bridge and architecture of a sitar that creates the timbre of a sitar. The sound of a sitar but the notes of a sitar.

NUVO: Probably my favorite piece on the album — “Corner Piece” — uses the guistar, and also has beautiful piano solo with really rich chords. It’s also a great change of pace.

Haque: I think Eric totally plays amazingly beautifully on that track and, I think, establishes himself as a player to be reckoned, not just as a funk keyboard player but as a great musician. I think Keith Jarrett will listen to that solo and say, whoa, I have competition now. That’s brilliant playing in every sense of the word: his technique is amazing, his sound is wonderful, his ideas are modern and yet very accessible and totally unique. I think Eric is one of the genius keyboard players of our time, and I think people are going to start realizing that over the next five years. It’s a great piece and it allows us to play with more dynamics and more sensitivity. And it’s a great composition by Alan.

NUVO: And it’s not that it’s not a complex piece, but he’s not trying to play only speedy arpeggios, or display all of his virtuosity on one solo. And that could be said for the whole band, that there’s a sort of sensitivity that isn’t intended to show off your obvious skills on every piece.

Haque: Fusion, in many ways, began as a kind of music about flexing your muscles. And I’d like to think Garaj Mahal is less about flexing those muscles than using those muscles to create energetic, interesting and fun music.

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