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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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RM: I never really worried about that aspect of it. I knew all those guys would show up with their "A game." It was fun to hear Jason Moran, François Moutin and Jack DeJohnette, and Jason, François and Damion Reid. I knew the hook-up with either rhythm section, regardless of drummer, was going to be seriously good. Jason really brought something special to the project too. He has an incredible way of knowing when to play and when not to play, and when to vary density. I remember thinking at one point that I wish Jason was playing more, but then when I heard it back on tape, I thought "Oh wow, this is perfect. He's seeing outside of it while he's in it." Jack and Bunky were on it right away and that was really cool. On one of the bonus tracks, they play a duet on "Seashells," one of Bunky's older tunes from his Healing the Pain album. It has this crazy, intervallic melody. I really wanted Bunky to record that again with Jack. I thought it would be really cool. Not that Bunky playing it with Freddy Waits is chopped liver. But it was really fun to see them play together and witness that shared history pouring out of them. It was exciting for me, and for them too. They were honored to be playing with each other.

AAJ: What's the future of the group?

RM: There will be more concerts in Europe and North America. We're really pushing it on all fronts. I think the group definitely has a future. I was very clear with Bunky when we were talking about doing Apex. I said "I want to record a group that's going to play gigs." With Kinsmen, I got very lucky given that we made an album and didn't play many gigs, yet it still got a lot of attention and did really well. I think that's a rare occurrence. Bunky is at a point where he's winding down his teaching career. He's not definitely going to retire, but he's teaching less than he ever has. He really wants to get out there and play again, so it's good timing.

AAJ: You mentioned you're also part of DeJohnette's new band. How did that opportunity come about?

RM: That's kind of funny. I actually played a gig with Jack at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend in 1997. Then I moved to New York three weeks later. It was Von Freeman's 75th birthday and they said he could choose to play with whoever he wants. I was flattered he asked me to play a couple of tunes with him. He brought Jack in for that gig and that was the first time we met. We kind of hit it off when we hung out. I told him I was moving to New York City and he said "Oh man, when you get there, give me a call." That's what everybody says, but everybody is actually really busy. I did call him a few times and he said "It would be good to play, but I'm busy right now. Let's talk again in April. It'll be a little looser then." So, I'd call in April and he'd say "It's kind of busy, can you call me in July?" I know he's extremely busy and he doesn't really know me from anybody else, you know? I figured it I ever did play with Jack, it wouldn't just happen because I kept calling him.

What did happen was quite backwards. Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski was playing with Jack in a Jack Johnson project that was commissioned by one of the French jazz festivals. I think they do a live soundtrack to the film. It includes Jack, Jerome Harris, Fuze, a British trumpet player named Byron Wallen, and a saxophonist named Jason Yard—two cats from the London scene. So, Fuze was doing that project, and he and I were talking about doing something together. We discussed who we would want to play with, and I said "I'd like to play with Dan Weiss and François Moutin—guys I know can deal with what I do and play incredibly well." Fuze said "What about Jack?" And I said "Of course I'd love to play with Jack." Fuze replied "Let me ask him. Send me some MP3s I can forward to Jack." I did, Jack heard the stuff and said "This stuff is killing, can you give me Rudresh's phone number?" [laughs] I thought "Okay, cool." Jack's manager called me a month later and asked if I wanted to be part of Jack's new group. He said "Let's do a rehearsal, record it, send out some demos and try to get some gigs." That's how it happened. We hit it off and have a really great relationship, musically and socially. So, that was really cool. We've done a handful of things so far. Jack's got his hands in a lot of different projects, so I think it will take awhile to mobilize, but I know he's really excited about this group. He's told us several times he feels this is the best band he's had.

AAJ: Fiuczynski recently joined your quartet. How does his microtonal approach complement what you do?

RM: It's interesting because I have a handle on a good bit of the microtonal stuff, but not to the degree that Fuze does. He works with a 72-note octave in which he's dividing the half-steps into six parts. That's virtually impossible to do on a saxophone, though I'm sure someone is doing it out there. I can do a good amount of quarter tone stuff, either finger-wise or through manipulating embouchure. Within Jack's band, things are really interesting because we can do some real ornamented stuff that's South Indian gamaka-like which is really nice. But the idea of us doing something in which we write music that has that within the composition is something Fuze and I are pursuing, together with François Moutin and Dan Weiss. Fuze and I have a really interesting interaction happening. If he's doing the microtonal thing and I'm playing the melody straight, a really cool rub happens that works. It works because we're not playing the same instrument, so it becomes a timbral thing. It's almost like the pitch difference turns it into that. So, that's really cool.

AAJ: What were the key lessons that emerged through your work with Kadri Gopalnath?

RM: It was obviously great to play with him, but if there were any life lessons, it was just him talking about happiness and family. At one point, we were traveling and playing gigs and he would say "You know, you have to take care of your wife." And it's something so obvious, but there was something about the way he said it that made me go "Man, no shit. I do need to do that." [laughs] And he said "You need to buy property, because property can be passed down to your kids." He would also talk about deriving joy from playing music. It's easy for us as jazz musicians to maybe think what we're doing is more important than communicating and reaching an audience—you know, that idea of music for music's sake and the "I don't care what people think" mentality. It can be easy to believe "What I'm doing is amazing or important." Kadri has done so much that's new for Carnatic music, yet he always talks about reaching the audience. He and I were talking about another saxophonist once and he said "I heard him and wondered if an audience likes this?" And I remember thinking "Wow, maybe not, actually." [laughs] The saxophonist I'm talking about has so much emphasis on being new and interesting, but is he communicating something to a broader base? Every conversation Kadri and I had about music, our interaction, and where jazz and Carnatic music intersect, had an undertone of "We have to reach an audience, whoever it is." I feel I have to be reminded of that for sure. There's so much joy when he's playing—not that I don't experience the same thing. I do when I play, but he's just a special person. It's funny, Bunky and Kadri are two halves of the same person to me. [laughs] I'm both of those guys put together, or at least that's what I want to be when I grow up.

AAJ: You've said you pushed Gopalnath into Western harmonic territory, which was a challenge for him. How did you grow as a musician working with him?

RM: More than anything, whatever I was going to do within the confines of the project could not be jive in any way. I couldn't jive some sort of Indian melodic raga-oriented thing with him sitting next to me doing it for real. What was important about the situation is that I felt like I could be a jazz musician within this kind of Indian setting, as opposed to finding a way to negotiate both sides, because half of it was taken care of. So, that was new territory. Of course, rhythmically, when we're trading all of that stuff he's throwing at me so quickly, I have to answer back. That was a ballbuster. It was like "Okay, I think I have good ears, but this guy has amazing ears and can play anything back." We did some gigs a few months ago for the first time in awhile and it was great. I saw how much I had grown in three years in terms of having a greater understanding of what I'm trying to do and where I'm headed. I felt like I was coming to the music with a more substantial level of maturity. I was thinking "Wow, I can hang in a way I wasn't hanging in 2007." That was very cool.

AAJ: Both you and Gopalnath have been considered outsiders during your careers. Did you have conversations about that?
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