Bobby Zankel and the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Special Guest Rudresh Mahanthappa
Science Center Theater, Montgomery County Community College
Blue Bell, Pennsylvania
May 8, 2010
This concert offered a stimulating blast of music from the outer stratosphere of modern jazz, performed by cutting-edge musicians who are among a handful who can truly make it happen. It consisted of two original compositions: the first, by Bobby Zankel, was entitled "Ndura: The Forest is Our Father and Mother"; the second, entitled "Dasha," was a much longer piece commissioned by the Philadelphia Music Project for the highly-regarded Rudresh Mahanthappa, who also served as guest soloist on alto saxophone.
Rudresh with Zankel (seated, on left)
The reviewer's experience with this music was similar to his first listen to John Coltrane's avant- garde loosely-structured composition, Meditations (GRP, 1966), a recording that came in the wake of the seminal giant's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) and incorporated the tenor saxophone of Pharoah Sanders with that of the leader. Initially, all he heard was a cacophony of wild sounds. But when he listened more carefully, its inherent beauty became more apparent. When Coltrane premiered it in New York in the 1960s, half the audience walked out, no doubt disappointed he didn't do "My Favorite Things" and his other signature pieces. The audience for the Warriors concert at Montgomery County Community College was much more respectful, appearing to enjoy the performance thoroughly. Whether the two very different responses reflected the historical times (performances separated by nearly a half century) or the audience' increased tolerance for musical challenges may necessarily remain an open question.
It's not that such music is hard to hear: by now most of us are familiar with dissonance and accept it. It's that so much is going on all at once and so rapidly that the "normal" brain gets rattled trying to keep track of it all. Yet, in this case, the extra demand placed upon the listener was well worth the effort. The musicianship was consummate, and there were gems of improvisation, highlighted by melodic interludes the likes of which are rarely if ever heard, along with brilliant turns of phrase and moments of deep, meaningful expression.
Rudresh Mahanthappa is himself a phenomenon. A brilliant instrumentalist and composer who integrates modern jazz with the eclectic music of the India of his parentage, he carries credentials that all but speak for themselves: Guggenheim fellow, 2009 Downbeat International Critics Poll Winner ("Rising Star- Jazz Artist" and "Rising Star-Alto Saxophone"), and Alto Saxophonist of the Year for 2009 as selected by the Jazz Journalist Association. But while these qualifications appropriately acknowledge his genius, to hear him play is simply an unforgettable experience. He follows the revered traditions of Coltrane and other ground- breakers, but his technique, like his influential predecessors,' resists comparisons, and he weaves line after line of transcendent beauty.
The first of the two pieces to be performed "Ndura," by Zankel (pictured above), was a breathtaking composition evocative of the untrammeled forests of our ancestors. Zankel explained it to this reviewer as follows: "Ndura is the name of the Ituri forest in the KiBara language of the BMbuti (pygmy). The forest is their whole world and gives them everything that they need, so this piece celebrates the interconnectedness of man and his environment." The work alternated between rich ensemble playing and interludes of quieter solos and reduced instrumentation, providing a sense of pause and reflection in the midst of the primal energy of unstoppable Nature. The Warriors executed complex counterpoints crossing the border between composed music and improvisation. Their clear sonorities and precise movement would flatter any symphony orchestra. And the ensemble clearly demonstrated the appropriateness of their elemental, heroically aggressive name: despite the standard instrumentation, they are no ordinary "dance band." One has to go back to Woody Herman's explosive "Thundering Herd" to find a band this forceful, electric and resilient.