Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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Rudresh Mahanthappa is a man on a mission. He's driven to integrate the saxophone into a vast panorama of settings far beyond its typical range. His output is often reflective of his Indian-American heritage, with an engaging hybrid approach that merges avant-jazz and South Asian elements. His current quartet, also consisting of microtonal guitarist David Fiuczynski, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, is emblematic of that direction.

In addition to his own band, Mahanthappa leads or co-leads several other groups that push the boundaries of jazz. For almost two decades, he's worked with pianist Vijay Iyer and they currently tour as a duo known as Raw Materials. Indo-Pak Coalition, featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss, is another key project. Mahanthappa also works with Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath in Kinsmen. The act explores the intersections between Indian and Western improvisatory approaches, with Mahanthappa taking on a jazz-oriented role, while Gopalnath represents the South Indian side of the equation. Mahanthappa is also one third of MSG, a mercurial trio with drummer Chander Sardjoe and bassist Ronan Guilfoyle that recently released its debut album Tasty! (Plus Loin Music, 2010).

Mahanthappa's latest recording, Apex, (Pi Recordings, 2010) is a cross-generational collaboration with the highly influential, yet unsung saxophonist Bunky Green. Best known for a string of albums on Vanguard in the '70s, including the acclaimed Places We've Never Been, Green is enjoying a renaissance of interest as a result of Apex. The fiery, impressive effort features original compositions from both Mahanthappa and Green, as well as performances from pianist Jason Moran, François Moutin, and drummers Damion Reid and Jack DeJohnette. While Green primarily focuses on his role as a jazz educator, serving as the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville, the group is an ongoing one, with future recordings and performances planned.

All About Jazz sat down with Mahanthappa to discuss the making of Apex, as well other pivotal moments in his career, over potent glasses of sweet potato schochu at the O Izakaya Lounge in San Francisco's Japantown. In conversation, Mahanthappa offers a similar combination of intrigue, inspiration and humor as that which informs his art.

All About Jazz: Describe the seeds of the Apex collaboration.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: My relationship with Bunky goes pretty far back. I first heard Bunky when I was at Berklee. I had just moved there from North Texas. The reason I left North Texas was I was hearing something that wasn't necessarily traditional in my head and I started developing some kind of "modern" vocabulary as an improviser and composer to some degree. I thought Berklee would be a better place to work that out. I hadn't yet heard Greg Osby, Steve Coleman or any of those folks. I was checking out a lot of Coltrane and 20th Century classical music and trying to reverse engineer how they created vocabulary and fodder for melodic ideas. During my first semester at Berklee, Greg Osby did a residency and played a concert at the end of his week. I can't remember liking or disliking it, but I thought there was something there that was different and very interesting. This was all happening in 1990. It was the year that Dave Holland released the Expansions album. A friend of mine put some headphones on my head in the practice room and said "Check this out." And I was like "Whoa, Steve Coleman." I couldn't believe what I was hearing when I encountered his writing and playing. I heard a kind of kinship with that music and what I was striving for. I heard Charlie Parker, Persichetti and Bartok all at the same time in what he was doing. That was kind of what I was chasing too. So, I got pretty deep into that.

Once, I was warming up for a lesson with Joe Viola, a legendary saxophone teacher who passed away a few years ago. He was listening to what I was doing and said "Have you ever heard Bunky Green?" I said "Never, but I've seen the name before." Joe then headed to this private closet of special albums and weird mouthpieces he'd loan out to students he liked. He loaned me this album by Bunky called Places We've Never Been and it blew my mind. I did a little bit of research and found out he was teaching at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. This was in the days before the Internet, so I was calling national directory assistance trying to track down his number. Finally, I got his office number and called him. He answered and I told him who I was. [laughs] I said I really loved his album and that I wanted to send him some of the tunes I was writing on a cassette tape, which was still the format back then. My goal was to get some feedback and it was something I was doing anyway. I was always giving cassettes to people I admired to get some sort of input, and hopefully lay some groundwork for playing with these people someday. Bunky actually called me back and said he liked what he heard and that he felt my direction was unique and to keep going and pushing. That was the beginning.

Bunky Green and Rudresh Mahanthappa

I didn't have any contact with Bunky for several years after that. I ended up in Chicago a few years later when I finished at Berklee. I chose not to move to New York City right away, and instead went to Chicago and do my Masters at De Paul University. I was in the big band there. The band went to perform at the Jazz Educators Conference, which was in Anaheim, California that year. I saw Bunky there and I reminded him of our phone conversation and the tape. He vaguely remembered it. I kept telling him I had a bunch of big solo features with the big band during our performance. I did it every time I ran into him over the course of the week. [laughs] I remember coming off the stage after our Sunday afternoon performance and there he was, standing by the side of the stage. He gave me a big hug and said "There are really only four of us. There's me and you, and Greg Osby and Steve Coleman. We all have to take the saxophone into the future." That was all I needed to hear. [laughs]
About Rudresh Mahanthappa
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