An outburst of saxophone flurries sits you straight up in your chair. The tone is rich but with a cutting edge.
It has to be Rudresh Mahanthappa. The riveting cry of his alto saxophone is one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz.
But those darting runs coalesce into Charlie Parker’s “Red Cross.” So it can’t be Mahanthappa, can it? He has made 15 straight albums of original music. He doesn’t do covers, right?
On his 16th recording, Hero Trio, Mahanthappa breaks through to the pasthis and ours. He proudly proclaims Parker’s bebopbut then “Red Cross” flies apart, into free showers of 16th notes. It is startling to hear Mahanthappa playing songs you know, even lilting ones like Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and time-honored standards like “I Can’t Get Started.” Of course, his versions do not stay lilting or standard for long. By the sixth track, you’re ready for anythingexcept “Ring of Fire.” Rudresh Mahanthappa doing a Johnny Cash song? There must be a story there.
The story begins in Coloradospecifically, Boulder. Mahanthappa’s father is a noted theoretical physicist who came to the United States from India to get a Ph.D. at Harvard and stayed in the American academic world, settling at the University of Colorado. The school’s website says that K. T. Mahanthappa is “interested in grand unification theories, fermion mixing and masses including charge fermions and neutrinos.” His son Rudresh shares a proclivity for the intellectually challenging and the arcane, but in 16th notes, not neutrinos. (There are two more sons in this high-achieving family, both with Ph.D.s in the sciences.)
Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, listening to people like Stevie Wonder. He started on alto saxophone in the fourth grade. He matriculated at the University of North Texas in 1988, right after it changed its name from North Texas State. The school had a reputation for turning out notable jazz musicians. Billy Harper, Lyle Mays, Bob Belden, and David Weiss went there. So did Norah Jones, briefly. (So did Meat Loaf, briefly, though presumably not in the jazz program.) Snarky Puppy started there.
Mahanthappa was not happy at North Texas. He says, “For me it was an uncreative place. There was kind of one way of doing things. And as a brown person in Texas, I never felt comfortable.” After two years, he transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school even better known for turning out notable jazz musicians. “I had always wanted to study with Joe Viola, who was one of the great American master teachers of the saxophone. Berklee was more the vibe I needed.”
When he took his degree in 1992, he did not, like so many Berklee graduates, relocate immediately to New York City. “I wanted to go to a big city that wasn’t New York, and Chicago was a place you could play a lot.” He entered a master’s program at DePaul University. By 1997, he was ready to make the move. “I always said I wanted to play with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette someday, and that was never going to happen if I stayed in Chicago. In the mid-’90s, you had to be in New York.”
Mahanthappa hit the jazz radar not long after arriving in town, when he joined forces with pianist Vijay Iyer. They began gigging and making records, some led by Iyer (Blood Sutra on Pi Recordings; Panoptic Modes, reissued on Pi), some led by Mahanthappa (Mother Tongue, Pi), some co-led (Raw Materials, Savoy). Today, Mahanthappa and Iyer are two of the most respected, most decorated musicians in jazz.
They dominate the critics’ polls in the alto saxophone and piano categories, respectively, and most years appear at or near the top of categories like “musician of the year” and “album of the year.”
Back at the turn of the millennium, though, they were up-and-coming players who were unusual for two reasons: There were few Indian-American jazz musicians, and they played strange stuff. Iyer is an autodidact who has always had his own percussive, polyrhythmic piano language. As for Mahanthappa, when you listen to his early recordings now, he already sounds like no one else. He already has that sublime alto saxophone shriek. His art is already dizzying in its diversity, juxtaposing melodicism and dissonance, formal focus and freedom. In his playing, you hear intimations of many moments in saxophone history, from primary sources (Coltrane, Coleman), to footnotes (Jimmy Lyons, Sonny Simmons). You also hear lyricism in beautiful new jagged shapes.
All the unfamiliar sonorities led many listeners, including critics, to assume that Mahanthappa and Iyer were bringing Indian influences into their jazz. “Not so much,” Mahanthappa says. “I knew very little about Indian music at that time. When I was a kid, my mother sometimes played bhajans on Sunday mornings. They were like Hindu hymns. She had this stack of 45s. But that was it. When I became a musician, I mostly ran the other way. I got tired of people expecting me to be an expert on Indian music.”
But a revelation occurred while he was at Berklee. He went to India to play with a Berklee student band at Jazz Yatra, a festival that no longer exists. “It was my first time in India in over 10 years, my first time going as an adult, without my parents. And I was going there to play music. It was a lot to deal with. I was terrified. I was confronting head-on all these questions: ‘How Indian are you? How American are you?’ It was a mindfuck. Then I went to an all-night event in Bangalore. There is a tradition in India of concerts that go all night, ’til dawn. What I heard blew me away. It was unbelievable. I found out later that some of the greats of Indian classical music had performed that night, both Hindustani and Carnatic. I went to record stores the next day and bought as many cassettes and CDs as I could carry. And that’s about all I listened to for a couple of years.”
When Mahanthappa made the recordings with Iyer in the early 2000s, he was not yet ready to incorporate Indian elements into his work: “I kept thinking, ‘How do you put these things together and still maintain reverence and integrity?’ Because I knew that Indian symbolism and iconography had mostly been engaged very superficially in jazz. For a jazz group to bring in a tabla player did not automatically result in a cross-cultural collaboration. I knew I wanted to create something that didn’t sound like cut-and-paste. If I was going to deal with Indian rhythms or Indian melodic content, it had to be integrated.”
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