After topping so many best-of-year lists with his extraordinary quintet on 2015's Bird Calls
(ACT), alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa
has gone into trio mode. His gritty, self-released Indo-jazz-rock album Agrima
(with guitarist Rez Abbasi
and drummer Dan Weiss
) was one of the highlights of 2017, and now he's at it again, this time with bassist Francois Moutin
and drummer Rudy Royston
, both of whom were featured on Bird Calls
. An overt nod to some of his formative musical influences, some more unusual than others, Hero Trio
is also the first Mahanthappa album to feature only covers. Even so, there's nothing routine about this music, which features plenty of Mahanthappa's superlative alto playing, in tandem with the preternaturally agile combo of Moutin and Royston.
Anyone familiar with Mahanthappa knows his debt to Charlie Parker
, an affinity he acknowledged explicitly with Bird Calls
, not by approaching Parker's canon slavishly but by reworking and reshaping it in an inimitably modern language. Here the legacy is more explicit, with Parker's "Red Cross" kicking off the album and "Barbados" and "Dewey Square" thrown in for good measure, not to mention in readily recognizable formalthough Mahanthappa's renditions still possess plenty of creativity. "Red Cross" opens with just the initial riff, before launching into an expansive groove, more funk or rock-based than bebop derived, before a fuller statement of the theme finally emerges. "Barbados" is conjoined to John Coltrane
's "26-2," for a killer one-two punch that sparkles with intensity. And "Dewey Square" is another winner, this time with Mahanthappa somehow merging the piece's bebop essence with a shifting rhythmic structure that pivots between swing and hard funk.
Other standards include a whip-smart version of Keith Jarrett
's "The Windup," as well as "I'll Remember April," the latter an especially strong arrangement, establishing contact with the tune obliquely as Mahanthappa surges atop a relentless groove. Moutin and Royston are indispensable equals here, able to range freely all over the rhythmic map, holding things together while still providing Mahanthappa with a long enough tether to venture outward at a moment's notice. Reminiscent of fellow altoist Thomas Chapin
's 1990s trio with drummer Michael Sarin
and bassist Mario Pavone
, these guys function superbly well as a cohesive unit. They maneuver through the machinations of Mahanthappa's arrangements with aplomb, generating music that is challenging enough to reward repeated encounters and, at the same time, a heck of a lot of fun.
As for the surprises on the album, two stand out: a Danilo Pérez
-arranged version of Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed," and Mahanthappa's own take on June Carter Cash/Merle Kilgore's "Ring of Fire." These are interesting, to be sure, although perhaps not entirely successful. "Overjoyed" seems to suffer when translated from a pop idiom to a jazz-inflected oneresulting in something of an identity crisis. The same dilemma plagues "Ring of Fire" even more noticeably, as Mahanthappa seems torn between deconstructing the tune and paying it homage. All told, this trio is at its strongest when sticking to repertoire with less-confining parameters.
One can quibble with some of Mahanthappa's choices here, but this outfit brings exceptional vitality and an unmistakable chemistry to its music. Future releases from the Hero Trio would be most welcome indeed.
Red Cross; Overjoyed; Barabados/26-2; I Can't Get Started; The Windup; Ring Of Fire; I'll Remember April; Sadness; Dewey Square.