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Adam Rudolph: Ragmala and Prototypical Music

Franz A. Matzner By

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The prototype is always the most resonant in the culture...You have to question everything in order to make prototypical music. —Adam Rudolph
Adam Rudolph has been seeking to push the boundaries of musical creativity for decades, developing a unique concept of composition, ensemble interaction, and conducting. As many writers have commented, his music resists critical commentary due to its prototypical nature. Said another way, Rudolph's music doesn't sound like anything else, and its antecedents are so varied that reducing the music to common labels such as "jazz" or "world music" quickly feels trite.

The reality is Rudolph's music taps into a large number of lineages and musical systems, but does not rely on any to form its fundamental core. This is particularly true for the Go: Organic Orchestra, a collective project which Rudolph founded and continues to organize in multiple locations around the world.

All About Jazz had the distinct pleasure of discussing Rudolph's latest effort Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas, which merged the Go: Organic Orchestra with the Brooklyn Raga Massive in an ambitious endeavor, the success of which illustrates the potency of Rudolph's dedication to collectivism, community, creative expression, and heightened consciousness.

Roots and Origins

All About Jazz: Where were you born and raised?

Adam Rudolph: I was born and raised in Hyde Park in the south side of Chicago.

AAJ: Are you still in Chicago or New York-based now?

AR: I live in the New York area now, but I came up in Hyde Park. At that time the environment represented a very special time and place. We can speak more about that. But since that time, I have lived in Ghana. I lived in Don Cherry's house in Sweden. I also lived in Venice, California and since 2008 back in the New York area.

AAJ: What made the Chicago period so special?

AR: Hyde Park [was] a very interesting part of South Side Chicago, in part because that is where the University of Chicago was located. And Hyde Park was where a lot of students and faculty from all over the world resided.

AAJ: That isn't always what people think of when they think of South Side. My limited understanding is that it was a pretty segregated society during the fifties and sixties. Was Hyde Park a type of anomaly?

AR: Exactly. The history of the South Side is that it became more and more African American and it was highly segregated. Hyde Park really was an anomaly in important ways. It was half African American, half Caucasian, and very international. Again, in part because of the student body and University faculty. This anomalous nature has a lot to do with its fertile quality. The [music] history of the South Side goes all the way back to Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. And all the way up to Gene Ammons and Sun Ra.

My first musical experiences were [diverse]. To start with, my father was a big music fan. I mean a music lover. He had an incredible record collection. He took me to hear Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Max Roach, and many others— live. He took me to hear the Chicago symphony many times. I also had my own unsuccessful run with classical piano lessons for several years, but when I started composing my own pieces my teacher didn't think much of that! Then I went to the University of Chicago laboratory school founded by John Dewey. That's where George Lewis went to high school by the way.

AAJ: It feels like right then Chicago was the crossroads. The big American meeting place where many things, but definitely musical traditions, were merging.

AR: Absolutely. I don't think that should be a controversial sentiment. There has been recently an overemphasis on New Orleans as the so-called birthplace of so-called jazz. We could probably talk about Chicago forever...but let's just say that I got to hear a lot as a teenager via my father and then through my own explorations. You could go to the Checkerboard Lounge and hear Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters because on Sunday afternoon you could go underage! I also should mention a specific concert by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969 that was life transforming. What inspired me about them was a certain chemistry that was magical. They demonstrated that whatever you can imagine to do in your music you can do. There are no boundaries. If you can develop the craft, the mechanism, and the language, you can do anything you envision.

AAJ: You mentioned Sun Ra, but Chicago is also the birthplace of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Were you involved with that?

AR: I was actually about to say that my music teacher was good friends with Leroy Jenkins, an early member of the AACM. So many of the AACM musicians actually played in my high school music classes. I heard the first concerts that the Air trio ever did. Marion Brown used to come and play duets with Steve McCall. Steve McCall lived two doors down from me. Henry Threadgill lived a few blocks down on 56th street. Howlin' Wolf lived nearby. Muddy Waters lived down the street.

So that was the environment of my early years.

Lineages and Transmission

AR: Another important figure is Phil Cohran, cofounder of the AACM, though he sort of broke off eventually. First of all he was in the Sun Ra Arkestra. And when Sun Ra moved on to New York he decided to stay behind and start this Afro-arts center. He developed a different kind of aesthetic than the AACM, and though he left the AACM he still had a huge impact on a lot of musicians. And out of his influence emerged a group called the Pharaohs. Pete Cosey was in that group and a lot of the members went on to play in Earth, Wind and Fire. So in fact, Earth, Wind and Fire's Egyptian theme also runs back to Sun Ra and was a very pervasive, fascinating aspect of what was going on in black culture on the south side of Chicago. The important thing here is that you have Earth, Wind and Fire and you have Sun Ra and you think these are two different worlds, but they're not. They have this common core.

AAJ: What fascinates me here is that as much as musical styles can influence each other and cultural contexts can evolve parallels, when you look deeper, you often find it was dependent on individual people making connections and cross-pollinating lineages. When two lineages meet, then they reflect both of them and if its powerful it can create a new lineage. From a distance you only see one product that appears sui generis, or the product of broad cultural elements. But that obscures the instrumental people and events of the living art. The accidental and individual nature gets lost.

AR: When you talk about Montparnasse when Picasso and everyone was hanging out, there are influences, but at the same time it's individuals. It's individuals resonating in a certain context and cultural environment.

For example, going back to when I was young, we used to go out to the Point in Chicago where these drummers were playing in the park. I'd wait around and then I'd try to play a drum. The thing is, it was beautifully acknowledged by these African American drummers that yeah, I was only 14, but I could kind of do it. It was O.K. that I was a beginner. And those were the kind of musicians who were in the AACM, like Malachi Favors and his brother George Favors the conga player, who used to play there. Not long after that I started to learn the Indian tradition of drumming, the tabla.

AAJ: I think of tabla as being daunting to study, so you'd have to approach it with seriousness. I assume to then really understand raga takes it to a whole other level?

AR: It does. And the same thing with hand drumming too. I did end up going to and living in Africa for a year and studying some African traditions somewhat in depth. Also, I slowly, slowly made my way into a more serious study of the tabla where I studied with Pandit Taranath Rao for over 15 years.

But to go back, one more time to Hyde Park, I want to say by the time I was 16 and had been playing hand drums, I ended up playing with a man named Maulawi Nurrudin. Which might also be a name that you won't easily find, but who was a very, very important person in the scene. Maulawi Nurrudin was a great musician. He was one of these people who stayed in Chicago and playing in his group was like being in school.

You know we need to talk about oral traditions at this time. There were no so-called jazz schools. The way you learned was to play with an older musician. That was how you learned the game. Maulawi was a tenor player, a soprano sax, who also played oboe. And Jack DeJohnette, Jerome Cooper, Rufus Reid all played in his group. Many great musicians came up playing with Maulawi. So here I am 16, 17, 18, and I'm playing with great masters. And they were generous.

AAJ: You've hit another one of my hobby horses. I believe there's evidence that within the jazz culture there's a transmission that's still master student in a way we've lost in other lineages. When it's mass transfer instead of master to student, there's something lost. There's a flexibility within jazz to be able to absorb other lineages especially if it's another tradition with a master-student approach to transmission.

AR: I think that's a really interesting idea. But master-student isn't [always] really the right phrase. With the tabla teacher, that was master-student because I was learning his instrument. The transmission aspect has to do with moving from the "what" to the "how" to the "why."

The "what" is you're a young person. You grow up and you hear an ensemble or records. For me, it was hearing things like Bitches Brew. That was the music attracting me. The transmission begins when you're with an older musician playing in the same group. And a lot of times you're not playing the same instrument as them.

Then the transmission moves to what I'm calling the "how," the process. How do musicians put their music together? How do they think about music? How does their creative process work? Because that "how" has to do with the beginning of working with elements, not just the style. It's working with elements, harmonic elements, rhythmic elements, orchestration elements.

The deepest part of transmission is what I call the "why." The "why" delves into the mysticism of music. Why are we doing this? What motivates us as a creative being? This relates to my experience with two of my mentors, Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry. These are radiant beings. Everybody knows a lot about John Coltrane and how he made overt in the music what was always there. Which was the mystical or spiritual aspect of it. Well, Yusef Lateef was the same kind of person.

You could say that the "why" has to do with transmission and sharing; with communication and joy. They showed us not only by what they did, but how they did it. Even more: by how they were. We can evolve from simply playing music to "being" music itself by living in tune, in harmony and in rhythm.

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