Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy
RM: What's funny about that is I had an entertainment lawyer at the time, which meant someone who was trying to find me a record deal. I had done my first album, Yatra, which was released on a student-run label through a college in Chicago. It was shopped to a few majors by a guy who taught a class, who was also the former CEO of Polygram. There was some really good interest, but it didn't go anywhere. He said "I can't really help you, but talk to this lawyer. She might be able to help you find something out there." She really jumped all over the Indian thing and said "I think it will be easier if I can sell you as a blah, blah, blah." She was the one that said "Maybe you could have Ravi Shankar as a guest." And I thought "Oh God, I really don't want to do this." During that period, Fareed Haque and I had talked about doing something and I wrote some music. We had a great tabla player named Maninder Singh and did a couple of gigs in Chicago around 1996. We even recorded a little demo. It was fun but it was also jive, superficial and all the things I didn't want to be. I didn't feel that engaged with the tabla like I am now that I have a real understanding of the instrument. When I moved to New York, a venue asked me to put together a band and it happened that Fareed was going to be in town, so I called the tabla player Sameer Chatterjee, and we rehearsed like crazy. We did a gig and a couple of record labels showed up and were interested, but the project fell apart. There was a voice in the back of my head that said "this doesn't feel right." I wasn't going to be able to make an album with that band and really be able to look at myself in the mirror every day. So, I disbanded the whole thing. I was disillusioned and pursued my quartet stuff.
Then I met Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss and it was like "Wow." I started feeling that this idea could work. Of course, I was growing as a musician and really felt like it was something that could be captivating for the average listener, yet be something filled with a lot of integrity, as well as a situation we could all learn from. I think of where we were when we made our debut album Apti and where we are now, and there's no comparison. We're at an extremely high level compared to the album. I'm really looking forward to that band recording again. It's a really high priority for me.
AAJ: You just rereleased Yatra digitally. How do you look back at it?
RM: The idea of rereleasing it was really fun. I'm happy for it to be back out in the world again. I think for a guy who was 24, it's a pretty good record. It would be cool to remaster it. It's a live to two-track recording, so there's not much that can be done to it. It has a lot of sentimental value. A lot of that stuff was written after I went to India in 1994, which was the first time I had been there in 11 years, and as an adult. So, I know exactly where a lot of the inspiration for that music came from. It was my first experience leading a band and feeling that I had real musical relationships with people in Chicago. I didn't feel like a student, I felt like a real musician. So, the album reflects that stuff. I remember working on the cover with the designer. Ten albums later, it's just kind of funny what you think is important early on. You're making your first album and there are a lot of misguided notions that go into it and that's because you're not sure you'll ever make another one again. [laughs] There are a couple of tunes on the album that are really good that I'd like to bring back and play again.
AAJ: Tell me how the MSG group came together.
RM: Ronan Guilfoyle was someone I'd been hearing about for a while. People compared his work to Steve Coleman and I also later learned he is sort of a forefather of creative improvised music in Ireland. We finally met at the Calgary Jazz Festival a few years ago and hit it off. He was more familiar with my work than I was with his, but no matter. I heard about Chander Sardjoe from Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman, who both said he was a rhythmic monster. He's a guy who can seemingly play any polyrhythm and make music out of it. He's also someone who can play any of Steve Coleman's music off the top of his head. More than anything, I knew that both of them had seriously delved into Carnatic music with a particular focus on its rhythmic aspects. Chander had gone to India and thoroughly dissected many concepts of Carnatic rhythm and Ronan has actually written a wonderful book about rhythm titled Creative Rhythmic Concepts For Jazz Improvisation that everyone should know about.