Rudresh Mahanthappa: Between Kadri and Coltrane


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Rudresh MahanthappaNew York-based jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa in conversation with Hemant Sareen. The interview appeared in the New Delhi-based men's magazine, M, March-April, 2007.

While Bobby Jindal and Indra Nooyi are making Indian-Americans' presence felt in the corridors of political and corporate power in the US, another front seems ready to be claimed by them: the arts. And nothing represents the American arts like jazz. Despite being an international musical currency, jazz is still an unbroken American tradition and a reservoir of the American spirit.

Nothing heralds the entre of Indian-Americans into the sanctum sanctorums of the American society better than the presence of Rudresh Mahanthappa as a leading, vital voice of jazz. The New York-based, thirty-something alto saxophonist and composer is, according to another all-American institution, The New Yorker ..."a talent to keep a steady eye on." Down Beat Magazine has named him a "Rising Star of the Alto Saxophone" for the past four years, (number two on the 2006 critics' poll list). The sound of his alto saxophone, that recalls as much the fluency of John Coltrane as the sharpness of Indian pickles has critics and audiences guessing its provenance.

Like the jazz giants of a previous generation, Mahanthappa's conceptualizing and composing skills, which feed as many as five jazz groups he leads or co-leads, have found equal acclaim. The cerebral-yet-swinging Codebook (Pi, 2006), based on number theory and encryptology inspired by Simon Singh's bestseller The Code Book (Anchor, 2000), was noticed by Wired and Science Magazine and is already in the top twenty on US jazz radio charts. His earlier album Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004), based on speech samples turned into musical notations, received four stars in Down Beat and made it to the top ten jazz CDs of 2004 lists of many jazz publications. It reached number eight on US jazz radio charts and remained at number on Canadian jazz radio charts for over a month.

Mahanthappa's international recognition has come from his innovative music, as well as working as a sideman with such big names as David Murray, Steve Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, David Liebman, and Greg Osby, to name a few. In all, Mahanthappa is one of the most influential jazz musicians in the US today, considered even as the future of jazz. In a telephone conversation with Hemant Sareen, he reveals how he and his jazz, gloriously proud of their hybridism, might even be the future of the US.

All About Jazz: I read somewhere that you were the only Indian family in Boulder, Colorado in California. So did that make yours an Indian or an American childhood?

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Yeah, I didn't grow up with many Indians there. My parents moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1965. And I think at that time they were probably two of the only Indians in Boulder. By the time I was born and growing up, there were a few more. But it was definitely a situation where being an Indian was definitely an oddity. At my elementary school there was one other Indian girl who was one or two years older than me. And everybody assumed she was my sister.

A difference I see in interacting with Indian-Americans of my own generation is that people are Indians to lot of varying degrees and it does have to do with how many other Indians they grew up with. For example, we never really learnt Kannada and growing up my parents spoke more English in the house than they did Kannada. Had there been other people to speak Kannada with, we would've learnt more. But we didn't.

AAJ: Was there a conflict at home between preserving your culture and trying to go out and assimilate?

RM: In a way, my parents found it difficult as they themselves were trying to learn how to raise children in a country that wasn't their country. So they were trying to improvise something. We were obviously taught Hindu prayers and my mom would listen to bhajans she had on lots of albums and tapes. We were raised as Hindus in a "sort of" way, not necessarily a very formal way. But conflicts? No. There was no pressure on my parents, whether to assimilate or not. In trying to learn how to raise children in a foreign country, my parents realized they had to be flexible too. For example, my younger brother came home from school and asked why we didn't have a Christmas tree like all the other kids did. One response would have been to say that we are Hindus we don't celebrate Christmas. But instead my parents chose to buy a Christmas tree. And we still celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree and giving each other presents. But we don't subscribe to any of the Christianity associated with it. So my parents were essentially put in a position of raising children who would ultimately have a hybrid culture.

AAJ: When did jazz or anything resembling jazz come into your early childhood?

RM: Well, my parents really encouraged us to be as well- rounded as possible and investigate as much as we could. So when my time came to choose an instrument, my older brother who played the clarinet at grade school, told me that I should play saxophone because he always regretted that by playing clarinet he wasn't allowed to be in the school jazz band, clarinet being too traditional an instrument. You know for saxophone there is very little European classical repertoire. So, playing the saxophone meant playing jazz, rock, or pop music.

Also, my jazz and saxophone teacher was amazing. I studied with him for eight years, from the age of 9 or 10, all the way until I left for the university. He was very well-rounded, and would always bring over albums for me of all different genres of music ?- jazz, different kinds of rock, traditional jazz, avant-garde jazz, soul, R&B. So, at a very young age I had a sense that there was a great versatility—that good music could exist in different forms. That was really important.

AAJ: You remember your first jazz album?

RM: Yeah, it was Winelight (Elektra, 1980), by Grover Washington Jr., a really great jazz saxophonist who passed away a couple of years ago. I think I still have a copy of it somewhere.

AAJ: How did Berklee happen? Were you deep into jazz when you went to the Berklee College of Music?

RM: Yeah, I think I was already deep into jazz in high school. Towards the end of high school I had to make some difficult decisions about what I was going to pursue in college. I was pretty torn between doing something math or economics related and pursuing music. My parents were of course terrified about the idea of me going and studying only music. My dad tried to convince me to consider double major, say study math and music courses together. Math was something I was passionate about also. Their other apprehension was that, although they liked what I do, and like it more and more as the years go on, my father being an academic, didn't have a sense of how good, or even how bad [laughs], [a musician] I was.

What persuaded them for sure was a very substantial scholarship I got to study music. Personally I felt if I had studied something else, I would have always found asking myself what could have been had I studied music. And I don't think I could live with this idea that there was something I was really passionate about that I wasn't going to pursue or pursue it to the extent that I wanted to.

AAJ: At Berklee, were you the only Indian student?

RM: I was the only Indian-American student. But there were four to five students who were actually from India. My major was in jazz saxophone performance.

AAJ: You say somewhere, that till than you thought you were white. When did the realization come that you weren't white?

RM: That happened before Berklee. Even though I knew I was Indian, being surrounded by white people and treated as a white person by friends, I had started thinking of myself as one. By college I gradually realized that I wasn't. Part of this was that before Berklee, I had gone to the North Texas State University, with a very good jazz program. This school is in the American south, which is a little bit of a racist part of the US. There, I was made aware of the fact that I wasn't white. The school also had a very large African-American student population. But I discovered that I didn't belong to that group either. That's when I started thinking more and more about my roots, where I come from, and what my identity actually is. I started reading a lot of Indian-American authors like Bharati Mukherji. She was at that time at the forefront of Indo-American, Indo-Canadian authors who wrote about the issues of hybrid identity.

But in a musical way, I think it was a little later that the awakening came. When I was at Berklee, the college decided to send an all-Indian band, with a few of the Indian kids who were at Berkley and me, to represent it at the Jazz Yatra 1994 in India. There was one particular point when we were in a bus somewhere in Tamil Nadu, just north of Madras. Somebody was playing a Bismillah Khan [a celebrated Indian player of shehnai, an Indian reed instrument closely resembling a clarinet, in the Indian classical tradition who died in 2006] CD on the bus stereo, and it really moved me. It touched me in a very special way.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

A couple of nights later we went to a concert where Praveen Sultana [a well-known exponent of vocal Hindustani classical music] was singing. That really blew my mind too. That was the point when I really started thinking more about my roots and their being a huge part of who I am, and trying to figure out how to make that a part of how I expressed myself musically.

Around that time my older brother brought me a CD by Kadari Gopalnath. I couldn't believe someone was playing Carnatic music on the saxophone. So between all those things I wanted to understand more about where I am from and how that figures into who I am and what can I do [with it].

AAJ: Does ethnicity matter a lot in your music?

RM: It's important to me. The way it comes out is through my composing. My compositional style is very much influenced by lots of rhythmic and melodic concepts of both the North and the South Indian classical music. And even my approach to my sound, or at least the sound in my head that influences the sound of my saxophone, is very much from the shehnai or the nadaswaram tradition.

AAJ: When you perform around the US, does the audience accept you as an all-American music maker?

RM: These are very interesting times in the US where the idea of being an Indian-American is very much at the forefront. It's almost like we are the new Americans now. Finally! [laughs]. I see the notions of things Indian all around me, whether its fashion, or television. There are more Indian-Americans on the prime time TV than there ever were.

There was a time when I felt people wanted something artily Indian from me or they were projecting something Indian on to me. So, somebody would either come up to me and say, "I really like your music, but can't hear the Indian element." Or, on the flip side, they would see the color of your skin and say, "Oh my God! I can hear the rich tradition of 5,000 years of classical Indian music in your playing." And that's not really true either.

I think what it comes down for me is that it's not about being Indian: it's about being Indian-American, it's about defining a relatively new bio- cultural entity in the American landscape. "We're here, the first generation of non-immigrant Indians, who are making waves in business, entertainment, music, or whatever, and this is who we are. We are very much in touch with our roots and in touch with being American. We don't have to have a tabla player in our band and we don't have to go on stage wearing a turban. We don't have to do these things because we are a hybrid identity that is very much here to stay.

AAJ: So you feel you have arrived and the Indian-ness you have brought to the American experience, is lauded? That makes your jazz as authentic as early jazz was with its slow, organic melding of forms and ideas.

RM: Exactly. And since jazz is rooted in being a hybrid form, it's been a really a great medium to work with for different bio-cultural identities. Though Afro-Americans are at the heart of jazz, there is a very strong, very significant Latin jazz scene here combining a lot of Afro-Cuban rhythms, melodies and aesthetics. So jazz has always been a great platform for mixing cultures. And beyond just playing music, I hope that the presence of a few of us within this cultural group, who have decided to take the less-traveled path [of music as a career], would make it easier for other Indian- Americans to do so. Maybe blaze a trail or set a precedent. At least show the people that it's possible to [have a career in the arts], and that we don't necessarily have to become doctors and engineers and computer scientists.

AAJ: Is being recognized as a "rising star" among a new generation of American jazz musicians by Down Beat Magazine the final proof of acceptance into the American society?

RM: That's a way of being accepted. But, yeah, definitely, absolutely. For my career personally, it's interesting that you bring that up, because what I said earlier about people projecting ideas of Indian-ness, or lack of it, on to my music, now happens less and less, and in fact, hasn't happened in a very long time. So I think all of that kind of coming together definitely makes one feel that I personally and Indo-Americans generally are being very much accepted as a real presence in the overall fabric of the American society. There was even a time even ten years ago when a record label wouldn't even consider signing on an Indian jazz musician because the marketing guys would say, "What do we do with this guy, especially, since he's not overtly playing fusion, and he doesn't have a tabla or sitar player in his band?" But now the field is wide open to us.

AAJ: Have you considered doing jazz standards from the Great American Songbook—Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin? You could bring a different musical sensibility to them.

RM: I used to do standards all the time when I was a kid. I guess I see that it's important to record standards. But, I also feel, there are so many people who have recorded standards so well, back when standards were actually brand new, whether it's John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington or Oscar Petersen. And they have done it better than I could. I feel, all of that information [contained in traditional jazz] is on a conceptual level already a part of my music. I deal with some of the same harmonic, rhythmic language. I don't really feel the desire to play Cole Porter songs when I could be playing my own music. And it's not going to make a significant contribution to the art form, as my playing my own music will. Maybe I'm trying to stick to what I do best.

AAJ: Your recent album, Codebook, that has caught the attention of Wired and Time Out New York for its innovative mathematics and encryptology inspired music, is cerebral like your earlier Mother Tongue, where you had actually musically transcribed speech samples of Indian Americans answering to the question, "Do you speak Indian?" Is concept-based, intellectual music the future of jazz?

RM: I don't think so. I like doing that. But I don't think it's necessarily the future of jazz. I see people toying with the idea more and more not so much the way I went about it, but may be I see people writing music, whole albums, inspired by the books or poems they have read. I see things like that happening more.

And before that, Mother Tongue was a very much a concept album too dealing with these speech samples of people saying, "I don't speak Indian," in their native Indian languages. It's one thing to say I was inspired by Bach or George Gershwin. That's great obviously. But the more interesting and challenging part for me is to look for inspiration outside of the immediate genre of music. And, I was certainly not the first person to deal with speech, cryptography, and number theory in jazz. My albums are social commentaries too. In Mother Tongue I was trying to convey that Indian-Americans are a part of the American landscape and everyone [in the US] must understand we are not all the same: we don't speak the same language, we don't eat the same food we don't practice the same religion. In Codebook, I was more trying to speak of ideas about security, military intelligence, identity theft.

AAJ: About some of your collaborations: What was it like working with Kadari Gopalnath?

RM: Yeah, that was really great. I am so glad it all happened. It was very interesting. From a musical point of view I had to work within certain parameters, so Kadari could feel comfortable. Otherwise I had to construct musical scenarios where he can essentially still do what he does, you know, play Carnatic saxophone. But there might be lots of things happening around him that are more Western, but they are based on what he is doing. He can react to them freely. People call it a fusion project but I feel like it really transcended fusion. It was its own thing that happened. It was a very synthesized, integrated thing that happened.

So it was just amazing to see how all of us grew as musicians over the course of those two weeks. But it was challenging. Indian classical musicians have their shruti, their key, and Kadari's key is B flat. So I was left with the challenge of writing a whole lot of music in B flat that somehow doesn't sound like it is in B flat. We have applied for some funding and it looks look we are going to make a recording in a studio which will hopefully come out in 2008 sometime.

AAJ: The other is with the Indian-American pianist Vijay Iyer. It's a long association. Was it just ethnicity that brought you together?

RM: Actually, Steve Coleman [the well-known tenor saxophonist, Mahanthappa's mentor-friend] introduced us. Vijay played the piano on Steve's band and had just recorded his first album on which Steve had played saxophone on some of the tracks. So Vijay and I got talking and we discovered we had so much in common both musically and socially, we had very, very similar upbringing, very intellectually oriented South Indian parents, and musically we were going after very similar things. As a result, even when we worked very hard on lots of things, there were certain aspects of playing together that were almost amazingly telepathic. Like, we didn't have to talk so much about what we were going to do. There was so much shared intuition. It was an undeniable pairing. That's why it has lasted for more than ten years now.

AAJ: Musically also, is he the McCoy Tyner to your John Coltrane?

RM: We have a a very special relationship and I think it's funny when critics write something like that. The idea of being compared to Coltrane is rather bizarre.

AAJ: And to Charlie Parker...

RM: Yeah, we all hope we can leave a mark on this music that's as significant as these guys made. And it's important to aspire to that. But I feel scared when I hear my name and these people's names being used in the same sentence. That's a lot to live up to!

AAJ: You do feel inspired though, don't you?

RM: To feel inspired all I have to do is to put on a Coltrane album and I'll be fired up to practice all day. I don't need somebody to mention my name and their name in the same sentence. Here is something from the Denver Post just a few days ago. It says [reads out]: "The slightly warm but gritty tone that rests somewhere between John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins..." That's a little bit scary, when people write that.

AAJ: That's pretty accurate!

RM: I'll have to say though: this idea of the Miles Davis Quartet and Coltrane being together for years, playing not just three consecutive nights but every night of the month at one club, is something that would never happen again in jazz. That's just the nature of the present jazz scene, both with regard to the economics and [compulsions] of popular music—jazz is no longer considered popular, but rather art music. So, there are fewer places to play at, and the money is less. Coltrane and Tyner were amongst those had the opportunity of playing together a lot for a very long time and developing a relationship that was special and unique. I think that in that way we have been fortunate enough to continue evolving together or more than ten years. There are very few jazz musicians of my age, my generation who can say that.

AAJ: You also lead and co-lead five different bands. That requires lot of imagination, highly developed skills in conceptualizing and composition. How do you manage so many different musical personas?

RM: Well, each group is radically different. These are very few people who overlap from group to group. Usually each of these individual musicians has different strengths and sonic possibilities.

But that's a good question. I have this Indo-Pak Coalition which is a trio, it's a saxophone, guitar and tabla combo, and I had been trying to write the Codebook music and the Indo-Pak music almost at the same time. And that was really difficult: I would come up with one idea that I really liked and I would see that there could be a way of orchestrating for the Indo-Pak band and another for the Quartet. So I had to choose which group got this really great musical idea. That was hard, you know. I try to avoid that situation and have time to focus on one particular group at a time.

AAJ: Your three all-time great jazz musicians without whom Rudresh Mahanthappa wouldn't have happened?

RM: I'll say, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. All saxophonists.

There's something organic and beautiful in the way Charlie Parker plays, the way he phrases. It almost sounds as though he is speaking to you. Obviously he was studied, and he worked very hard, but his playing sounds effortless. He could be just having a beer and telling you a funny story. He had things that he liked to play, he had very signature "links," as we call them. Not to mention that he was a ridiculously amazing saxophonist in every aspect and an incredibly spontaneous improviser. He's so spontaneous. I think that level of spontaneity is very rarely seen in jazz.

AAJ: Do you relate to his live-it-up, rather raffish lifestyle? Or you separate the man and the musician?

RM: I don't know. I guess I don't think that much about his lifestyle. It is not so much that I separate them. I wish I knew more about the inner workings of his life. It's been portrayed in so many different ways, and many of them negative. Yes, he was a drug addict, he liked to have his fun. But it was a very difficult time for an African-American in this country. I think, there were a lot of really insane forms of exploitation. Especially in the way that the white entertainment higher ups—the managers, the record executives, who really took advantage of incredibly talented black musicians. If Charlie Parker was alive today, he would have probably found it easier to stay clean and stay straight; and still be the amazing musician that he was. His was an unfortunate time and unfortunate set of circumstances.

AAJ: Does John Coltrane's spirituality have any resonance with you?

RM: Yeah, I think so. But that wasn't the reason I went to him. I think I was attracted to his playing. Even if he or she had no idea that he was coming from a spiritual angle, the average listener would still feel moved hearing his albums like A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), or his composition "Alabama." Yeah, there was something about him. He could play. He could hold one note and you would feel moved by it. There was a spiritual depth to it, undeniably so.

One of the things I really admire about him is, I read this article recently where a famous saxophonist being interviewed was comparing two other great saxophonists, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. He was talking about Rollins as the more intuitive player and Coltrane the more studied player. In some ways Coltrane is seen as a late bloomer. If you talk to people coming up with Coltrane, I guarantee, ninety-nine per cent of them would say that they had no idea that Coltrane was going to end up doing what he did for his music. He wasn't necessarily a naturally great saxophonist like Rollins. I have to say that that was something that attracted me to him: I never felt like I was a natural saxophonist either: I had to work pretty hard to do what I am able to do now.

AAJ: The stridency of bebop or the anger of free jazz—do you relate to that?

RM: I don't know about anger, it's more about energy. I relate to things that are pretty high energy. The urgency of bebop runs through it. There is a lot of free jazz I don't like. Sometimes my music is placed in that category but I think it's pretty unrelated and very little of what I do is free—it's highly structured. But I can see how people just with the energy alone put me in the same box as free jazz.

Rudresh MahanthappaAAJ: Your three all time favorite jazz albums?

RM: Winelight (Elektra, 1980), by Washington Grover Jr., Savoy Recordings (OJC, 1944-49) by Charlie Parker and John Coltrane's Impressions (Impulse!, 1961) There are a lot of different versions of Impressions now because they released a lot of unreleased recordings. But the very first Impressions has always been an amazing inspiration to me. Any Bismillah Khan or Praveen Sultana album. [Live In London (Vol. 2), Ustad Bismillah Khan (2000); Live At The Queen Elizabeth Hall By Ustad Bismillah Khan (2000); The Genius Of Begum Parween Sultana, Begum Parween Sultana].

I am thinking of the albums that, if I completely feel devoid of inspiration or ideas can make me feel reinvigorated and re-inspired.

Unfortunately lots of Indian classical albums have these really stupid titles. An Hour of Ecstasy with Praveen Sultana, what's that?

Ornette Coleman I think was visionary. He kind of broke everything else. He was completely inspired by the blues and by Charlie Parker. But he saw something in it that was beyond. People talk of him being avant-garde or playing free jazz, you know there are all kinds of funny labels, because he was coming out of Charlie Parker as much as anybody was. He saw a different way of organizing music, just as Picasso saw in organizing different parts of a woman's body. He took the familiar and put them in unfamiliar places.

Selected Discography

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Codebook (Pi, 2006)
Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa, Raw Materials (Savoy Jazz, 2006)
Rez Abbasi, Bazaar (Zoho, 2006)
Vijay Iyer, Reimagining (Savoy Jazz, 2004)
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004)
Vijay Iyer, Blood Sutra (Artists House, 2003)
Rudresh Mahanthappa, Black Water (Red Giant, 2002)

Photo Credits
Black and white photos: Maurice Robertson
Color photo: John Kelman

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