Babaghanoush: Track By Track
Besides being a great fun word to say, Babaghanoush (the name refers to an eggplant dip, probably originally from Iraq or Iran) is a great listen. The music is a fusion of middle eastern rhythm and melodic elements with wildly inventive improvisations and masterful driving rhythms. The band is led by Jimmy Mahlis who plays guitar and fretless guitar, Jerry Watts on upright and standard basses, saxophonist Antti Suzuki and Ralph Humphrey. From the opening raga-esque notes of “Club Bollywood” , to the danceable Greek melodies of “Karapataki” to the blue eloquence of “Eleni’s Waltz”, this recording surprises and rewards close listening at every turn. Mahlis is a wonderful composer, and Ralph’s playing on the recording is nothing short of masterful. We asked him to break down how he approached recording each of the tracks on the CD Sudhumani.
DRUM!This tune opens very powerfully with you playing sort of a quadruple speed rhythm under the head.
RHI played the tune with a jazzy approach because the head is jazzy. The melody is modal in character and not really based on a harmonic structure either. It’s open and sort of like one chord but there is a little event that happens at the end of the melody which sort of changes the meter, and it goes into eight bars of drumming and four bars later on.
DRUM! This is a beautiful, very folky, very Greek tune and the guitar sounds like Nashville telecaster meets the Greek isles.
RH I first heard this on a recording I think it was unreleased with Tos Panos and Jimmy. I gave it a rock approach, a little heavier and tried to make it sound bigger. I’m really going for it banging the cymbals, sort of like John Bonham meets fusion. Jimmy is going for the quartertone effect on guitar, it’s like a Greek folk song in that respect. He’s playing a fretless guitar, which allows those bends and tones. I just try to keep the groove happening but really driving hard through the solos and making it really strong.
DRUM! This is a beautiful ballad.
RH The approach that Jerry and I take here is based on instinct. Jimmy did not say what he was looking for. I play with brushes, and I took the snares off, and really tried to choose phrases that would erase the bar line. No big downbeats.
DRUM! You almost sound like a hand drummer.
RH I like to use the drum set so it gives the effect of a dumbek, it’s almost talking.
DRUM! Is this song about whirling dervishes. For me it conjures images of gypsy woman dancing in a giant circle.
RH Something like that is probably where the tune comes from. The idea was to get it started and wind it up so it would have a frenetic climax and resolve in the end. It’s the longest cut on the record.
DRUM! "Open The Door, Lenio" is another Greek-influenced tune.
RH That’s as Greek as you can get, the rhythm in nine is 2-2-2-3. We keep that beat going all the way through and it’s a very intense piece, with all the sections sort of very traditional Greek structure.
DRUM! Jimmy's solo is amazing.
RH Jimmy is not your usual guitar player. He likes to get into something and work with it. Every time he plays the solo is different, he digs down and finds something that is inspiring and unique.
DRUM! Antti Suzuki sounds like an anti-saxophonist. He plays piano lines on sax.
RH He really plays beautifully, avoiding clichés. He’s also a wonderful pianist, by the way.
DRUM! I notice that throughout this record, you’re really playing grooves and anchoring the music, not necessarily dialoguing with the melodic instruments.RH You'll hear some of that. Most of the time in this band I'm playing my function, just pushing the energy. You’ll hear some of that. Most of the time in this band I’m playing my function. In this band, the bass is most unusual because generally the bass is the center post, but here, he has to find out where he needs to go.
DRUM! The structure doesn’t wait for the bass player to provide the foundation.
RH Not at all, there is nothing to read and I have my role and Jimmy has his and the bass finds a creative place in between. It’s really folk music.
DRUM! A lot of folk music is really built with implied rhythm. People sat around campfires and sang and had flutes and this music is like that, the melody embodies everything.
RH That’s right it’s built from the top down, not from the bottom up.
DRUM! This is a beautiful Greek modal kind of tune.
RH I call this the ECM style in which means straight eighth notes, erasing the bar lines, keeping it moving but without a lot of structured phrasing or patterns, you’re playing straighter. The texture there is very much the style of Peter Erskine, Brian Blade, Bill Stewart, Jack DeJohnette.
DRUM! How long did it take to record the CD?
RH We did all the basic tracks in two days and then came back did one more tune, because the recording went to Digital Heaven [laughs]. I think it was “Sudhamani”. It was produced by Ronin Murphy and mixed by Dennis Moody. Ronin Murphy and mixed by Dennis Moody. We recorded at Two Tone Studios in Venice. It was comfortable we took our time had two full days there. We tried to be relaxed but as you know, budgets don’t exist these days so we tried to be frugal.
I used Yamaha and Zildjian. For this record it’s a Maple Custom setup. I started with a 20” kick and because I wanted it nice and warm I used two heads. In retrospect I’d rather hear more attack on the kick drum and there were some other problems, but it sounds okay. The kick does not overpower the toms on the record. But they are very expressive. I’m very careful with tuning. I was using a great head by Remo called Suede. I find them interesting for jazz and this kind of music. It’s very warm, I like the attack. They last. I used a couple different snares. I used the 18” kick on Sudhamani and maybe one other tune.
DRUM! When you say you’re careful what do you mean?
RH I just mean that I really set them up just for that session. I then try to get the right sonic mix of drums for each tune. Like I used the 18” kick on Sudhamani and maybe one other tune. Then for “Karapataki” I pulled out the 10” I use 10, 12, 14, 16. With every tune, I’m varying the approach to the drums more than the tuning.
Here’s another example. I was doing the sessions for a show called “American Idol.” You might have heard of it [laughs]. We were recording those tunes in shorter versions than the originals and we were doing this a few days before they would be performed on television. My whole goal was to cop the original feel. So what I would do for the tunes is change the snare and that would change the whole character of the drum set. Sometimes I might change a ride. The engineer might come in and try to move the mics to get a different sound or mood but really I did it with snare drums and attack.
DRUM! Ralph, you’re the only guy who played with Frank Zappa and Kelly Clarkson. [more laughs]. How did you set the mikes for the Babaghanoush sessions?
RH Two overhead, a mike on each tom, two on the kick, one close and one further back. There was a hi-hat mike but we took it out. I was in an isolation booth. There was no opportunity for ambient mikes but it wasn’t necessary for this project.
DRUM! Can we expect a follow-up?
RH There will be a follow-up record. We’re already talking about that. We’re gigging in town and want to tour. You can get hold of the CD at www.babaganoushmusic.com.