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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls

Dave Wayne By

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On Bird Calls, alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa takes on the music of Charlie Parker in a personal and profound way, accompanied by his whip-smart, uber-hip and youthful backing band. Let's face it, folks; this is the sort of thing a jazz fan's daydreams are made of. The result doesn't disappoint; Bird Calls is a masterpiece, and will certainly grace many a critic's year end "Top 10" list.

It's evident that Mahanthappa thought this album through from start to finish well in advance of recording anything. Not that it sounds plotted out or contrived. Far from it. Listening to Bird Calls, one gets a very strong sense that Mahanthappa had the tunes, the band, and even the song sequence together in his mind for quite some time. Yet, this music is palpably vital and completely fresh. It would actually take a lot of planning just to get these players together to rehearse and record. Mahanthappa's ensemble is comprised of some of the most in-demand young jazz musicians on the planet.

Fresh off of the Thelonious Monk competition, in which he finished third, trumpeter Adam O'Farrill brings heavy pedigree (he's the grandson of Chico O'Farrill and the son of Arturo O'Farrill) and tons of skill to the front line. He blithely goes toe-to-toe with Mahanthappa, himself an extremely resourceful and unpredictable improvisor to say the least. Ironically, O'Farrill—the youngest member of the band—is also the one whose lineage is most directly related to Parker's. His grandfather was an originator of the Cubop sound in the late 1940s, working directly with Parker, Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie on "The Manteca Suite." Pianist Matt Mitchell, a long-time collaborator with the likes of Dave Douglas and Tim Berne, seems to be popping up everywhere and in a wide variety of contexts. Much the same can be said of drummer Rudy Royston; Mitchell's band mate in Douglas' quintet. His faster-than-lightning drumming recalls that of Marvin "Smitty" Smith in his prime. Bassist Francois Moutin is one of Mahanthappa's go-to guys and a jaw-dropping virtuoso of the first order. As high the level of musicianship, and as brainy a fellow Mahanthappa is, the main thing that shines through on Bird Calls is that these guys are having fun.

The compositions on Bird Calls are Mahanthappa originals, but what the saxophonist has done is subtly and artfully rework a clutch of tunes and solos from Parker's repertoire into completely new and different pieces. Harmonies are altered, rhythms were modulated, tempos changed, rests removed and added, and the result is more than a breathtakingly beautiful tribute: it's utterly contemporary, literally bursting with post-modern hustle and bustle. Each piece has a hidden reference to the source material in its title as well (though the liner notes give each one away). The album opens with "Bird Calls #1" which essentially functions as an alap; a rubato improvisation that introduces and develops into the next piece, "On the DL." Inspired by "Donna Lee," the piece is a whirlwind of Carnatic-inspired melody, minor keyed harmonies, bounding rhythms, and fiery improvisation, capped by Royston's solo: a virtual tornado of rolls around the kit.

"Chillin'" evokes a more peaceful, sunny mood as Mahanthappa and O'Farrill swap melodic lines before joining together on the final bluesy phrase. It's rather difficult to find the Parker influence amongst the highly dramatic harmonic and dynamic shifts of "Talin is Thinking," but it's a gorgeous piece nonetheless, replete with melismatic embellishments. The rapid-fire melody of "Both Hands," however, cleverly nods back to the frenetic pace of bebop, though these guys have clearly upped the ante on the original concept. Mitchell chips in cagey solos on the lovely "Gopuram" and "Maybe Later," the latter a hard-charging, blues-tinged blowing vehicle. The album's penultimate track, "Sure Why Not" is the only one that even comes close to being a ballad. Moutin carries the day here, contributing an eloquent solo and lush accompaniment.

The sheer density and complexity of this music threatens, at times, to overwhelm. Mahanthappa solves this by using the subsequent "Bird Calls" interludes to spotlight unaccompanied, largely rubato, solos and duos. It's an interesting device, and one that both breaks up and ties together the adjacent pieces.

Bird Calls is one case where you should believe the hype. The artistic intent behind Mahanthappa's music is unassailable, its technical accomplishment unquestionable, and its rewards are many.

Track Listing: Bird Calls #1; On the DL; Bird Calls #2; Chilllin’; Bird Calls #3; Talin is Thinking; Both Hands; Bird Calls #4; Gopuram; Maybe Later; Bird Calls # 5; Sure Why Not?; Man, Thanks for Coming.

Personnel: Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Adam O’Farrill: trumpet; Matt Mitchell: piano; Francois Moutin: acoustic bass; Rudy Royston: drums.

Title: Bird Calls | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: ACT Music


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