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It's hard to know what key will open a locked door. For Rudresh Mahanthappa, the door was his desire to meld the compositional and improvisatory esthetics of jazz and Indian classical music. Mahanthappa's key arrived when his brother gave him a post-recital gag gift: A CD by legendary Indian musician Kadri Gopalnath called Saxophone Indian Style (Oriental, 1997). Far from laughing it off, Mahanthappa took it as proof that his dream could work. He sought out Gopalnath a few years later; the result is Kinsmen, and it is a dream on many levels.
Indian classical music is not like European classical music, in that there is no tradition of composing new works for the genre. Mahanthappa had to bring Gopalnath over that hurdle so he could find melodic possibilities within Mahanthappa's compositions that would fit the precepts of Gopalnath's musical frame of reference. Given the quality of Gopalnath's performances, and the performances of the Indian musicians recruited to the Dakshina Ensemble, it's safe to say that common ground was found.
Mahanthappa opens Kinsmen with "Introspection," a meditation that could be the soundtrack for a documentary on India. The heat and space created by Mahanthappa's all-Eastern alto lines and Rez Abassi's single guitar notes are like being on a sailboat on the River Ganges at middday; the wind is still and the sun pounds like a sledgehammer. Then Mahanthappa slips a slur into his sax and a hop to the beat, and "Introspection" gives way to the many colors of "Ganesha," which has the kind of intricately layered charts Charles Mingus made his living on.
The band is a juggernaut, but its armaments aren't completely traditional, at least from a Western perspective. While there are standard jazz references from Abassi and the rhythm section of Carlo de Rosa and royal hartigan, A. Kanyakumari's violin is straight out of the streets of Bombay, as is the hand-drumming of Poovalur Sriji. Throw in the thrillingly similar-but-different sounds of Mahanthappa and Gopalnath's alto saxophones, and the overall harmonic is something that needs to be experienced.
For the most part, Kinsmen moves between East and West quite easily. "Longing" is a standard blues one minute, a prayerful cry the next, while "Ganesha" and "Convergence (Kinsmen)" are long-form musical murals of vibrant color and echoing depth. Various band members perform superb solo features called "Alaps," which are openings to traditional North Indian classical pieces that allow for improvisation; these act as bridges between pieces, making Kinsmen seem like a single concerto. The only misstep"Snake"fails because it becomes less like music and more like a mantra; it's a technical marvel, but like any mantra, it takes dedication to get through it.
Kinsmen is the kind of fusion Dizzy Gillespie loved, bringing two cultures together over one shared subject: Jazz. It's a good thing Rudresh Mahanthappa found that key.