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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Between Kadri and Coltrane

By Published: August 2, 2007
AAJ: The other is with the Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. It's a long association. Was it just ethnicity that brought you together?

RM: Actually, Steve Coleman [the well-known tenor saxophonist, Mahanthappa's mentor-friend] introduced us. Vijay played the piano on Steve's band and had just recorded his first album on which Steve had played saxophone on some of the tracks. So Vijay and I got talking and we discovered we had so much in common both musically and socially, we had very, very similar upbringing, very intellectually oriented South Indian parents, and musically we were going after very similar things. As a result, even when we worked very hard on lots of things, there were certain aspects of playing together that were almost amazingly telepathic. Like, we didn't have to talk so much about what we were going to do. There was so much shared intuition. It was an undeniable pairing. That's why it has lasted for more than ten years now.

AAJ: Musically also, is he the McCoy Tyner to your John Coltrane?

RM: We have a a very special relationship and I think it's funny when critics write something like that. The idea of being compared to Coltrane is rather bizarre.

AAJ: And to Charlie Parker...

RM: Yeah, we all hope we can leave a mark on this music that's as significant as these guys made. And it's important to aspire to that. But I feel scared when I hear my name and these people's names being used in the same sentence. That's a lot to live up to!

AAJ: You do feel inspired though, don't you?

RM: To feel inspired all I have to do is to put on a Coltrane album and I'll be fired up to practice all day. I don't need somebody to mention my name and their name in the same sentence. Here is something from the Denver Post just a few days ago. It says [reads out]: "The slightly warm but gritty tone that rests somewhere between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins..." That's a little bit scary, when people write that.

AAJ: That's pretty accurate!

RM: I'll have to say though: this idea of the Miles Davis Quartet and Coltrane being together for years, playing not just three consecutive nights but every night of the month at one club, is something that would never happen again in jazz. That's just the nature of the present jazz scene, both with regard to the economics and [compulsions] of popular music—jazz is no longer considered popular, but rather art music. So, there are fewer places to play at, and the money is less. Coltrane and Tyner were amongst those had the opportunity of playing together a lot for a very long time and developing a relationship that was special and unique. I think that in that way we have been fortunate enough to continue evolving together or more than ten years. There are very few jazz musicians of my age, my generation who can say that.

AAJ: You also lead and co-lead five different bands. That requires lot of imagination, highly developed skills in conceptualizing and composition. How do you manage so many different musical personas?

RM: Well, each group is radically different. These are very few people who overlap from group to group. Usually each of these individual musicians has different strengths and sonic possibilities.

But that's a good question. I have this Indo-Pak Coalition which is a trio, it's a saxophone, guitar and tabla combo, and I had been trying to write the Codebook music and the Indo-Pak music almost at the same time. And that was really difficult: I would come up with one idea that I really liked and I would see that there could be a way of orchestrating for the Indo-Pak band and another for the Quartet. So I had to choose which group got this really great musical idea. That was hard, you know. I try to avoid that situation and have time to focus on one particular group at a time.

AAJ: Your three all-time great jazz musicians without whom Rudresh Mahanthappa wouldn't have happened?

RM: I'll say, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. All saxophonists.

There's something organic and beautiful in the way Charlie Parker plays, the way he phrases. It almost sounds as though he is speaking to you. Obviously he was studied, and he worked very hard, but his playing sounds effortless. He could be just having a beer and telling you a funny story. He had things that he liked to play, he had very signature "links," as we call them. Not to mention that he was a ridiculously amazing saxophonist in every aspect and an incredibly spontaneous improviser. He's so spontaneous. I think that level of spontaneity is very rarely seen in jazz.

AAJ: Do you relate to his live-it-up, rather raffish lifestyle? Or you separate the man and the musician?

RM: I don't know. I guess I don't think that much about his lifestyle. It is not so much that I separate them. I wish I knew more about the inner workings of his life. It's been portrayed in so many different ways, and many of them negative. Yes, he was a drug addict, he liked to have his fun. But it was a very difficult time for an African-American in this country. I think, there were a lot of really insane forms of exploitation. Especially in the way that the white entertainment higher ups—the managers, the record executives, who really took advantage of incredibly talented black musicians. If Charlie Parker was alive today, he would have probably found it easier to stay clean and stay straight; and still be the amazing musician that he was. His was an unfortunate time and unfortunate set of circumstances.

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