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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

By Published: May 2, 2011
What did happen was quite backwards. Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski was playing with Jack in a Jack Johnson project that was commissioned by one of the French jazz festivals. I think they do a live soundtrack to the film. It includes Jack, Jerome Harris, Fuze, a British trumpet player named Byron Wallen, and a saxophonist named Jason Yard—two cats from the London scene. So, Fuze was doing that project, and he and I were talking about doing something together. We discussed who we would want to play with, and I said "I'd like to play with Dan Weiss and François Moutin—guys I know can deal with what I do and play incredibly well." Fuze said "What about Jack?" And I said "Of course I'd love to play with Jack." Fuze replied "Let me ask him. Send me some MP3s I can forward to Jack." I did, Jack heard the stuff and said "This stuff is killing, can you give me Rudresh's phone number?" [laughs] I thought "Okay, cool." Jack's manager called me a month later and asked if I wanted to be part of Jack's new group. He said "Let's do a rehearsal, record it, send out some demos and try to get some gigs." That's how it happened. We hit it off and have a really great relationship, musically and socially. So, that was really cool. We've done a handful of things so far. Jack's got his hands in a lot of different projects, so I think it will take awhile to mobilize, but I know he's really excited about this group. He's told us several times he feels this is the best band he's had.

AAJ: Fiuczynski recently joined your quartet. How does his microtonal approach complement what you do?

RM: It's interesting because I have a handle on a good bit of the microtonal stuff, but not to the degree that Fuze does. He works with a 72-note octave in which he's dividing the half-steps into six parts. That's virtually impossible to do on a saxophone, though I'm sure someone is doing it out there. I can do a good amount of quarter tone stuff, either finger-wise or through manipulating embouchure. Within Jack's band, things are really interesting because we can do some real ornamented stuff that's South Indian gamaka-like which is really nice. But the idea of us doing something in which we write music that has that within the composition is something Fuze and I are pursuing, together with François Moutin and Dan Weiss. Fuze and I have a really interesting interaction happening. If he's doing the microtonal thing and I'm playing the melody straight, a really cool rub happens that works. It works because we're not playing the same instrument, so it becomes a timbral thing. It's almost like the pitch difference turns it into that. So, that's really cool.

AAJ: What were the key lessons that emerged through your work with Kadri Gopalnath?

RM: It was obviously great to play with him, but if there were any life lessons, it was just him talking about happiness and family. At one point, we were traveling and playing gigs and he would say "You know, you have to take care of your wife." And it's something so obvious, but there was something about the way he said it that made me go "Man, no shit. I do need to do that." [laughs] And he said "You need to buy property, because property can be passed down to your kids." He would also talk about deriving joy from playing music. It's easy for us as jazz musicians to maybe think what we're doing is more important than communicating and reaching an audience—you know, that idea of music for music's sake and the "I don't care what people think" mentality. It can be easy to believe "What I'm doing is amazing or important." Kadri has done so much that's new for Carnatic music, yet he always talks about reaching the audience. He and I were talking about another saxophonist once and he said "I heard him and wondered if an audience likes this?" And I remember thinking "Wow, maybe not, actually." [laughs] The saxophonist I'm talking about has so much emphasis on being new and interesting, but is he communicating something to a broader base? Every conversation Kadri and I had about music, our interaction, and where jazz and Carnatic music intersect, had an undertone of "We have to reach an audience, whoever it is." I feel I have to be reminded of that for sure. There's so much joy when he's playing—not that I don't experience the same thing. I do when I play, but he's just a special person. It's funny, Bunky and Kadri are two halves of the same person to me. [laughs] I'm both of those guys put together, or at least that's what I want to be when I grow up.

AAJ: You've said you pushed Gopalnath into Western harmonic territory, which was a challenge for him. How did you grow as a musician working with him?

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