Like Tony Scott's famous Music for Zen Meditation or Al Gromer Khan's self-styled Paisley music in Mahogany Nights' most profound compositions, Jai Uttal's latest, a collaboration with long-time producer Ben Leinbach, is a classic meditative/ambient work deliberately structured to be used during the personal practice of Yoga and other Joys. Jai's trademark dotar, a kind of traveling mini-sitar used by the itinerant Bengal Bauls, dominates the 26 minutes of the opening track "Govinda". It hovers above a trance/ambient groove with subterranean synth beats and some later solo chant and e-guitar interludes. Other tracks feature choral chanting and serpentine bansuri solos.
As one of the first Western-style Hindu devotees to put ancient mantras and Kirtan song into a contemporary musical context, Jai Uttal has experimented broadly. At times, this has meant straying from his Bhakti roots while searching for urban modernization and Pop appeal. The best of his work combines truly heartfelt Shakti energy in a cutting-edge WorldBeat environ. The spin-off ensemble Tulku, by now in its third recording incarnation, has taken much inspiration from Jai's pioneering groundwork. Arguably, it has enjoyed its well-deserved success because of it.
Music for Yoga and other Joys returns Uttal to his greatest love and strength, that of the practicing devotee playing and singing out his heart in utter disregard of broadcast rules or top-ten conventions. The Steve Reich-reminiscent subtext of tasteful electronica spaces works beautifully to create an atmosphere of Himalayan suspension. Sung Sanskrit mantras and improvisations on dotar, electric guitar and Manose's flute flutter in the timeless breeze of inner explorations like Tibetan prayer flags in the highland deserts of Bhutan.
One could nearly presume that with this album, Jai gets to have his cake and eat it, too. He's free to wear his devotional heart on his Californian sleeve while the electronica/groove setting surrounding him enjoys so many precedents without a deliberate meditative orientation that listeners from either camp can readily meet and feel right at home yet find more than they might have expected. Maxing out the available 74 minutes of RedBook-allotted recording time, the album's five episodes exceed customary track length by three or more times each. That's because Music for Yoga relies on musical sub-phrases which are slowly and subtly altered while progressing in endless circular repetitions. Combining elements of Eastern-style drone work and Western-style rhythmic grooves, this shifty repetitiveness can readily induce concomitant shifts in brainwave activity in the attentive listener to enhance personal endeavors in Yoga or similar practices.
Lovers of Uttal's music who felt that Mondo Rama wasn't his strongest effort will be pleased to hear that Music for Yoga and other Joys sees our Kirtan prince return home in the straightest of lines. It makes one wonder whether his guru Neem Karoli Baba foresaw how accepting Westerners into his group would not only connect two worlds but soon become a powerful pipeline flooding directly into the space between the ears, of Occidentals who, without any conscious ambitions of embracing the ancient practices of devotional worship, would find themselves wiggling on the hook regardless. There's a mysterious power in music - and Jai Uttal's plays the kind that's connected directly to a living and ongoing ancient tradition. Listen to this album and enter this magical stream without even trying!