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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

By Published: May 2, 2011
RM: It's a really unique talking point. It's something Vijay Iyer and I have talked about. There was no template for musicians of our generation to make jazz and art as South Asians. The industry almost didn't know what to do with us. Record labels and industry people would say things like "What you do is very interesting, but have you ever thought about doing an album with a sitar player? Maybe Ravi Shankar could be a guest?" [laughs] So, we had to forge our way ahead until we created enough buzz for ourselves. We had to be active enough that people started paying attention. And obviously, they honed in on this one unique point—the blatant, glaring point that we weren't black, white or Latino. Rather, we were Indian. There was a time when I was regarded as "that Indian alto player." Now, it's more about being respected as a fine modern jazz alto player. But people still want to talk about the Indian thing. I don't know if they feel like they're making me comfortable by bringing that up, but I know it's a comfortable entry point for them. It does beat "Wow, you sound like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy" though. [laughs] That's what people used to say about me for years, which is absolutely not true.

AAJ: Early in your career, you played in reggae and ska bands. Reflect on that period for me.

RM: I was just trying to make a living. My first real forays into being a professional musician took place during a very concentrated period. I played on a cruise ship in 1991. It was a small big band thing on Carnival Cruise Lines. That experience changed my whole perspective on playing music. It was my first professional gig and I was horrified by the music and the people. There was a lot of alcoholism, and a lot of "lifers" out there on the ships talking about what they were going to do when they got off the ship. And I didn't see that coming anytime soon for them. I actually kind of flipped out and ran back home to Colorado after six weeks instead of staying out the whole summer and going back to Boston like I was supposed to. I thought about quitting playing music. It was incredibly devastating and depressing. I thought "If that's what it means to be making a living being a musician, I don't want to have any part of it." I was so shocked by the whole thing.

At that point, I also saw the value of teaching. I knew I was a very good teacher and saw that as a way to perhaps sustain myself without having to play commercial gigs. I moved to Chicago shortly after that and I was unrelenting there. My attitude was "If I'm ever in a situation where I'm unhappy and my saxophone is in my mouth, then there's something wrong." So, I would go out and do weddings, playing "Hot, Hot, Hot" and when there was a saxophone solo, I would just play my shit. [laughs] Of course, I would never get hired again. Almost every wedding band I did a gig with was the first and last time I played with them. I thought that was hilarious, because I wasn't relying on it to make a living. I was teaching and more interested in playing for people who were actually listening.

I decided I'd rather play a reggae gig with people that were into the music. I was in a reggae band that was quite successful in Chicago called Charles Cameron and the Sunshine Festival. We're very briefly featured in the movie Love Jones, a beautiful African-American love story that takes place in Chicago. The director saw us play one night and asked us to do it. We did a shoot at The Wild Hare, a really famous reggae club in Chicago. It was fun. I also played a lot of salsa and merengue gigs during those days. They paid horribly and were always far away, which was hard, because I didn't have a car. They were also really, really loud, but man, I was able to get some real saxophone skills together playing merengue. That music is very hard to play. There's a lot of tonguing and weird, fast fingering involved. And again, I liked playing for people. It wasn't like putting on a tuxedo and playing a private party and feeling like wallpaper. In the meantime, I also had my own band. I was trying to get gigs and write music, but even with those reggae bands, if I had a solo, I would just play my shit too. [laughs] The leader thought that it was cool and even hilarious. So it was all good. In that sense, my role model was Michael Brecker. It's interesting to see what he got away with. No matter what he plays on, he's playing exactly like him. If he's playing with Dire Straits, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. If he's playing with Paul Simon, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. [laughs] It's almost like people didn't realize that he was pulling a fast one on them. I always thought if I was going to be in those situations, I was going to have the same attitude. I'm going to play my thing and somehow make it relevant to this reggae or merengue situation.

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