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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Between Kadri and Coltrane

By Published: August 2, 2007
AAJ: So you feel you have arrived and the Indian-ness you have brought to the American experience, is lauded? That makes your jazz as authentic as early jazz was with its slow, organic melding of forms and ideas.

RM: Exactly. And since jazz is rooted in being a hybrid form, it's been a really a great medium to work with for different bio-cultural identities. Though Afro-Americans are at the heart of jazz, there is a very strong, very significant Latin jazz scene here combining a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms, melodies and aesthetics. So jazz has always been a great platform for mixing cultures. And beyond just playing music, I hope that the presence of a few of us within this cultural group, who have decided to take the less-traveled path [of music as a career], would make it easier for other Indian- Americans to do so. Maybe blaze a trail or set a precedent. At least show the people that it's possible to [have a career in the arts], and that we don't necessarily have to become doctors and engineers and computer scientists.

AAJ: Is being recognized as a "rising star" among a new generation of American jazz musicians by Down Beat Magazine the final proof of acceptance into the American society?

RM: That's a way of being accepted. But, yeah, definitely, absolutely. For my career personally, it's interesting that you bring that up, because what I said earlier about people projecting ideas of Indian-ness, or lack of it, on to my music, now happens less and less, and in fact, hasn't happened in a very long time. So I think all of that kind of coming together definitely makes one feel that I personally and Indo-Americans generally are being very much accepted as a real presence in the overall fabric of the American society. There was even a time even ten years ago when a record label wouldn't even consider signing on an Indian jazz musician because the marketing guys would say, "What do we do with this guy, especially, since he's not overtly playing fusion, and he doesn't have a tabla or sitar player in his band?" But now the field is wide open to us.

AAJ: Have you considered doing jazz standards from the Great American Songbook—Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin? You could bring a different musical sensibility to them.

RM: I used to do standards all the time when I was a kid. I guess I see that it's important to record standards. But, I also feel, there are so many people who have recorded standards so well, back when standards were actually brand new, whether it's John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington or Oscar Petersen. And they have done it better than I could. I feel, all of that information [contained in traditional jazz] is on a conceptual level already a part of my music. I deal with some of the same harmonic, rhythmic language. I don't really feel the desire to play Cole Porter songs when I could be playing my own music. And it's not going to make a significant contribution to the art form, as my playing my own music will. Maybe I'm trying to stick to what I do best.

AAJ: Your recent album, Codebook, that has caught the attention of Wired and Time Out New York for its innovative mathematics and encryptology inspired music, is cerebral like your earlier Mother Tongue, where you had actually musically transcribed speech samples of Indian Americans answering to the question, "Do you speak Indian?" Is concept-based, intellectual music the future of jazz?

RM: I don't think so. I like doing that. But I don't think it's necessarily the future of jazz. I see people toying with the idea more and more not so much the way I went about it, but may be I see people writing music, whole albums, inspired by the books or poems they have read. I see things like that happening more.

And before that, Mother Tongue was a very much a concept album too dealing with these speech samples of people saying, "I don't speak Indian," in their native Indian languages. It's one thing to say I was inspired by Bach or George Gershwin. That's great obviously. But the more interesting and challenging part for me is to look for inspiration outside of the immediate genre of music. And, I was certainly not the first person to deal with speech, cryptography, and number theory in jazz. My albums are social commentaries too. In Mother Tongue I was trying to convey that Indian-Americans are a part of the American landscape and everyone [in the US] must understand we are not all the same: we don't speak the same language, we don't eat the same food we don't practice the same religion. In Codebook, I was more trying to speak of ideas about security, military intelligence, identity theft.

AAJ: About some of your collaborations: What was it like working with Kadari Gopalnath?

RM: Yeah, that was really great. I am so glad it all happened. It was very interesting. From a musical point of view I had to work within certain parameters, so Kadari could feel comfortable. Otherwise I had to construct musical scenarios where he can essentially still do what he does, you know, play Carnatic saxophone. But there might be lots of things happening around him that are more Western, but they are based on what he is doing. He can react to them freely. People call it a fusion project but I feel like it really transcended fusion. It was its own thing that happened. It was a very synthesized, integrated thing that happened.

So it was just amazing to see how all of us grew as musicians over the course of those two weeks. But it was challenging. Indian classical musicians have their shruti, their key, and Kadari's key is B flat. So I was left with the challenge of writing a whole lot of music in B flat that somehow doesn't sound like it is in B flat. We have applied for some funding and it looks look we are going to make a recording in a studio which will hopefully come out in 2008 sometime.

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