Rudresh Mahanthappa: Dancing on the Edges of Time

Victor L. Schermer By

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Saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa is constantly making waves in the music world, expanding the technique of his instrument and integrating jazz and world music, especially that of his parents' native land, India. Brilliantly innovative, he often surprises with his improvisations and the way he transforms the music into something new and stimulating. India's great poet, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, "Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time..." With his rhythmic propulsion and inexhaustible energy, Mahanthappa is always on the cutting edges of the musical traditions which undergird his playing and creative efforts.

In addition to forming his own groups, Mahanthappa enjoys collaborating with other innovative players like Vijay Iyer, Bunky Green, and the Indian Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath. In this way, he has not only garnered praise and recognition from critics and fans alike, he is also one of a special class of players who have led jazz into the New Millennium, rooted firmly in tradition, while finding new directions and possibilities in a new era of human history and music making. His latest recording, Bird Calls (ACT Music, 2015) is a tour de force of musical inventiveness, paying homage to Charlie Parker by transforming Bird's songs and improvisations into new forms and structures.

Although he has been interviewed many times, All About Jazz wanted to find out how he would pull together various aspects of his life and career to see how it all came together and led up to, among other things, what he calls his Charlie Parker Project.

AAJ: Let's start with the infamous desert island question. Which CDs would you take to that desert island?

RM: OK. Grover Washington Jr.: Winelight (Elektra, 1980). The Brecker Brothers: Heavy Metal Bebop (Arista, 1985). John Coltrane: Transition (Impulse, 1970). Charlie Parker: Tbe Complete Savoy Recordings (Definitive, 1999). And the group "Yes:" Relayer (Atlantic, 1974).


AAJ: While many listeners know you've been heavily influenced by music from India and the world, the impact upon you of specific American jazz legends is not as well-known. Which of the great American jazz musicians had the biggest influence on you as you were coming up?

RM: Definitely Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. The way I got into music was by way of R&B and soul music in the 19870s-80s, which I often heard on the radio, as well as jazz-rock fusion. The music which early on inspired me to play came from people like David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Jr., and Michael Brecker. I was still a kid when I first heard these guys, maybe as young as 9 or 10 years old. Soon after that, I heard Charlie Parker, and was more or less a "Charlie Parker head" all the way through high school. And then I started getting interested in Coltrane. And then it was Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and anyone else I could get my hands on. I'd go to the library every week and check out albums, including the great singers, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and so on. The Indian music didn't become a life-changing force artistically until I was in college.

AAJ: Did Ornette Coleman have an early influence on you?

RM: In some ways, yes. I felt he sang through the horn in a way that was really unique. There was a very vocal and very friendly quality to the way he played. For me, he was very similar to Charlie Parker. But I didn't start seriously checking out a lot of Ornette until college, when I went through a period of listening to all kinds of Ornette. In fact, when I was at Berklee College of Music, I did a recital of all Ornette tunes. And I tried to dig deep into some of his compositions that weren't performed so often, and some of his least famous albums. And that was really fun and really important.

AAJ: Who was your first saxophone teacher? I assume that would be in Boulder, Colorado, where you grew up?

RM: Yes. His name was Mark Harris, and he's still very active in the Denver area, and he's still one of my very good friends. In fact, he was a groomsman at my wedding. We had an unusual relationship. He was a college sophomore when I began studying with him, and I was one of his very first students. Now he's very active as a teacher and university professor.

Mark had a big impact on me. He never used terms like "straight ahead" or "avant-garde." He brought over albums for me to listen to every week when he gave me lessons. He gave me a real mix. Like it could be on a given occasion, a Charlie Parker, a Louis Armstrong, and a progressive rock album. Or it might be Ornette Coleman, Sonny Stitt, and so on. Then I'd listen to them each week, and I'd never draw lines between their specific styles -it was all jazz to me. It wasn't until I went to college when I heard people use specific terms like "bebop," "hard bop," and "avant garde" and like, this is "outside" or "inside." I never really thought about music in any of those terms, and I still try not to.

AAJ: During what years were you studying with him?

RM: My best guess is that it would have been around 1980 through 1988, when I was in fourth grade until I went to college.

AAJ: You were quite an early starter with the saxophone!

RM: That was perhaps because our school district had a very good music program. The school band started in fourth grade.

AAJ: Was your first instrument the saxophone?

RM: I started with the recorder, and I really liked playing it for two years, and then the transition to saxophone was easy because the fingerings are very similar.

AAJ: So that was the beginning of your formal musical training, and eventually you went to Berklee College of Music.

RM: And after Berklee I went to graduate school at DePaul University in Chicago and got my master's degree in composition.

AAJ: In going through this educational process, what impressed and influenced you the most?

RM: My teachers were all very encouraging. As early as ninth grade, I started a band which tried to play Charlie Parker tunes. All through high school, I had my own bands, and our teachers gave us many opportunities to perform at school concerts.

When I went to Berklee, one of the most important opportunities was being able to study with Joe Viola. Joe, who has since passed away, was one of the legendary saxophone teachers. Not so much jazz as such, but the saxophone as instrument. He himself had studied at the Paris Conservatory, which was considered the foundational school for saxophone playing. Just being around Joe and talking about sound, and vibrato, and the mechanics of playing the horn was truly amazing.

Also, at that time, I was studying with the fabulous tenor saxophonist George Garzone, and his energy was really great. And at same time, I was already investigating various approaches to improvisation on my own, which George encouraged. And then I had a teacher named Ed Tomassi, who taught a very good theory and improvisation class. Between the three of them, as well as being at a place like Berklee, with tons of great musicians around my age, there was a lot of learning that went beyond the coursework. I was playing with other people, writing tunes, working with other like-minded individuals, and those were all very important experiences.

Music of India

AAJ: So, at Berklee and then Chicago, you were picking up on many aspects of the jazz scene. How did Indian music come into play for you?

RM: Well, first of all, it went beyond music as such. I was a child of Indian immigrants. Many children of immigrants put themselves under a microscope and try to sort out to what degree they feel American and to what extent they feel connected with their heritage. I grew up eating Indian food and practicing Hinduism every day, but I didn't really know my parents' language. I didn't grow up with other Indian families, and more importantly, families from my parents' part of India. This is important, because there are many different languages in India, so the ties go deeper into the particular region and language they came from.

AAJ: Which part of India did your parents come from?

RM: My parents are from the Bangalore area in the south of India, and they speak a language called Kannada. Only in the last ten or fifteen years has there been an influx of South Indians in the U.S. Prior to that, mostly North Indians came here. And northern India is different. The family of languages, the food, the way Hinduism is practiced, are all different. India is a very diverse country.

Up through high school, I grew up in a predominantly white community, and it was easier to think of myself as being white. But then I went to college at North Texas State University, where there was a big mixed black and white population, and I suddenly realized that I wasn't either one of those. So that's when I started to look into what it meant to be Indian in America. Fortunately there were a number of Indo-American and Indo-Canadian authors writing fiction and non-fiction about the experience of being a first generation Indian-American. I learned a lot from these books.

Indian music had always intrigued me. Growing up, I had heard mostly religious music, songs called Bhajan, devotional songs sung at a temple, the equivalent of church hymns. And of course, my parents had a couple of Ravi Shankar albums and some Indian classical vocal albums.

Due to my skin color, people often made the unfair assumption that I was an expert on Indian music! Actually, that expectation scared me off from Indian music! I didn't feel I had a safe place as yet to listen to and enjoy Indian music without having the burden of having to be an expert. However, at college I started studying Indian music in depth and detail as a way for me to embrace my ancestry, and I do feel closer to my parents and their culture and language now, because it's become so much a part of my music and what I do. At the time, I was also looking into Coltrane's music. All that helped define how I fit into the multicultural landscape of America.

AAJ: Did your comparing Coltrane and Indian music have a big impact on your playing?

RM: No, not necessarily. Looking back, I can see the connections and the through-lines, but I wasn't really looking for it at the time. The comparison between Indian music and jazz came much later.

AAJ: Coltrane was a good friend of Ravi Shankar.

RM: I would like to know more of the way that Coltrane was influenced by Indian music. We know that he studied it, but how he integrated it is unclear. I'd love to ask Ravi Coltrane if anything in his father's notebooks showed how he dissected it, looked at different ragas, and so on. Of course, at the time, Coltrane was the epitome of the world musician. He was checking out everything he could get his hands on. Whether it was Indian music or Stravinsky or African or Japanese music, he was in it and on it. That's the biggest way that Coltrane was a role model for me.
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