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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

By Published: May 2, 2011
Once, I was warming up for a lesson with Joe Viola, a legendary saxophone teacher who passed away a few years ago. He was listening to what I was doing and said "Have you ever heard Bunky Green?" I said "Never, but I've seen the name before." Joe then headed to this private closet of special albums and weird mouthpieces he'd loan out to students he liked. He loaned me this album by Bunky called Places We've Never Been and it blew my mind. I did a little bit of research and found out he was teaching at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. This was in the days before the Internet, so I was calling national directory assistance trying to track down his number. Finally, I got his office number and called him. He answered and I told him who I was. [laughs] I said I really loved his album and that I wanted to send him some of the tunes I was writing on a cassette tape, which was still the format back then. My goal was to get some feedback and it was something I was doing anyway. I was always giving cassettes to people I admired to get some sort of input, and hopefully lay some groundwork for playing with these people someday. Bunky actually called me back and said he liked what he heard and that he felt my direction was unique and to keep going and pushing. That was the beginning.

Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa

I didn't have any contact with Bunky for several years after that. I ended up in Chicago a few years later when I finished at Berklee. I chose not to move to New York City right away, and instead went to Chicago and do my Masters at De Paul University. I was in the big band there. The band went to perform at the Jazz Educators Conference, which was in Anaheim, California that year. I saw Bunky there and I reminded him of our phone conversation and the tape. He vaguely remembered it. I kept telling him I had a bunch of big solo features with the big band during our performance. I did it every time I ran into him over the course of the week. [laughs] I remember coming off the stage after our Sunday afternoon performance and there he was, standing by the side of the stage. He gave me a big hug and said "There are really only four of us. There's me and you, and Greg Osby and Steve Coleman. We all have to take the saxophone into the future." That was all I needed to hear. [laughs]

After that point, we always talked about trying to do something together. I think he had mixed feelings about coming back and playing in Chicago, where he was based. He's from Milwaukee, but he definitely spent a good chunk of his career in Chicago before he went to Florida. He had a lot of history with the clubs. I think he felt if he was going to come back and do something in Chicago, he wanted it to be something big, not just a couple of nights in a medium-sized club. So, that never really panned out. We kept in touch over the years, and then my friend Mike Orloff, a major concert presenter in Chicago, asked me to be part of a series called Chicago World Class Jazz that he curates. It takes place in Millennium Park and there has to be a Chicago orientation to the concert presented. It wasn't enough that I lived in Chicago. He wanted me to involve Chicago musicians. He initially asked me to bring the Kinsmen project to the series and add a bunch of Chicago musicians to it. That seemed potentially disastrous to me because it's already such a difficult band to mobilize that I don't need to dilute or complicate it. I said "I don't want to do that, but how about if Bunky and I do this thing we've been talking about doing for years?" He said yes and we performed with a septet, including four horns and a rhythm section, featuring Chicago musicians. It went down beautifully. There were 10,000 people there and it was amazing. It gave Bunky a lot of faith in doing something together.

He's of a different generation. He's been part of a lot of things and he's been screwed over. He's had to deal with things that weren't what they were supposed to be and he's a little cautious, with good reason. When I'm 75, I'll be really cautious too. But he was really pleased and knew we had to move forward, write more music and document the project. We started talking about rhythm sections. I know Jason Moran quite well, and Jason played on one of Bunky's albums too. Jack DeJohnette and Bunky knew each other from their Chicago days, but never really played together. I was playing in Jack's band, and still am, so there were all kinds of shared histories, combined with coincidences and incredible timing. Everyone happened to be around the one week we made the album and made themselves available to do some gigs.

AAJ: Tell me about the collaborative process that enabled the music on Apex to happen.

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