It's no exaggeration to say Jai Uttal is the best in his genre. He's the only one in his genre. He's built his devotional-music shtick from the ground up, and his contagious enthusiasm transcends any doubts I have about forebearing hymns to Shiva, Krishna, and others in the Hindu pantheon. In some of his earlier material, rococo English-language lyrics pitched promising songs down the kitsch chute. But Shiva Station shows Uttal mostly sticking with Hindi, Sanskrit, and Bengali, wrapping chants of praise in aggressively bright arrangements courtesy of his big band, The Pagan Love Orchestra.
Borrowing his thrown vocal technique from wandering mystics the Bauls of Bengal, marrying it to an amplified amalgam with no obvious ancestors except maybe the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and punching up the incarnation with horns, distortion-guitar solos, acoustic Indian instruments like the gub gubbi, and big thumping bass, Uttal concocts a kind of Yogi klezmer. Emotional intensity is everything, and in the manner of the furious freyleks launched by the Klezmatics, the soul bares itself in endless crescendos as cuts like Sita Ram mountain-goat from one peak to another. Hari Guna Gao begins with an alap, à la classical Indian music; proposes a harmonium over a snappy drum kit and a subcontinent of synthesizers; and then floats Jai on the foam of Krishna qawwali. Sure, the guy's no Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He sings like a white Californian ex-rocker, but whether pushing the interdimensional envelope or laying back in a meditative croon, he wields lifetimes' worth of accumulated charisma.
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Countless artists from John Coltrane to Mickey Hart's Diga Rhythm Band have been building pontoon bridges between East and West for decades, but none with Uttal's playfulness. The title cut weds a hara-hara chant right off a Bay Area street corner with a convincing reggae rhythm track, and neither vocals nor backing feel grafted on. The organic wholist chi is the beauty of this stuff, and the fact that the Pagans can start and stop on a rupee or unfurl a roaring trombone when needed nails the performances with the intensity of a freshly scrubbed gaggle of converts. Credit the power of Jai's invention that only on the closing cut Never Turn Away, the last of three English-language songs, does spirit get in the way of flesh as message supercedes the music. Since I rarely play even my favorite discs to the end, I simply exit Shiva Station before the terminal.