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.


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