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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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RM: We didn't have conversations about sharing that experience, but we did talk about his past, which was great, because it was like a jazz musician's past. I always think a lot of Indian music is about lineage, involving the son or the grandson of the disciple of so and so, with all of this knowledge passed down. People are almost anointed. And then you have the whole Brahmenical culture on top of that too. That adds another layer of high-falutin' superiority. With Kadri, you have a guy who's not a Brahman. He's the son of a semi-professional musician who plays in the local temple. Kadri is a self-made man. He talked about how he was on this schedule in which he was working at an electronics store, selling transistor radios, and working a 10-hour shift there. Then he'd come home, eat, and practice until 3:00 am in the morning. He'd go to sleep for three hours and go back to work. He did that for a few years while he was trying to get his thing together. He also discussed the All India Radio thing, in which you get "Class A" or "Class B" for your playing. You're judged on your abilities in order to get work on radio. He walked into All India Radio with his saxophone and they laughed at him. Then he started playing and they said "Ohhhhh." They conducted a kind of examination and said "Now do this. Now can you play this?" And he's playing the hell out of all this traditional Carnatic musical literature. What a novel experience it must have been to get over with those folks.

I didn't really tell Kadri about the ways I felt like an outsider, because really, I wasn't sure if he would even get it if I did. I think being trained as a Western musician and making a living in that universe is very alien to him. He would even get hung up on really basic things like clothes. He would say "You don't wear traditional Indian clothes?" I said "No, I never have." He'd respond "You don't wear a black-and-white tuxedo like the orchestra musicians either?" I said "No, I usually wear nice pants and a good shirt. Very occasionally I'll wear a suit for something special." And he'd say "So, what you wear is traditional jazz dress?" That would crack me up. I didn't know how to explain it to him. [laughs]

AAJ: Tell me about the beginnings of Indo-Pak Coalition and how the idea evolved into the current line-up.

RM: What's funny about that is I had an entertainment lawyer at the time, which meant someone who was trying to find me a record deal. I had done my first album, Yatra, which was released on a student-run label through a college in Chicago. It was shopped to a few majors by a guy who taught a class, who was also the former CEO of Polygram. There was some really good interest, but it didn't go anywhere. He said "I can't really help you, but talk to this lawyer. She might be able to help you find something out there." She really jumped all over the Indian thing and said "I think it will be easier if I can sell you as a blah, blah, blah." She was the one that said "Maybe you could have Ravi Shankar as a guest." And I thought "Oh God, I really don't want to do this." During that period, Fareed Haque and I had talked about doing something and I wrote some music. We had a great tabla player named Maninder Singh and did a couple of gigs in Chicago around 1996. We even recorded a little demo. It was fun but it was also jive, superficial and all the things I didn't want to be. I didn't feel that engaged with the tabla like I am now that I have a real understanding of the instrument. When I moved to New York, a venue asked me to put together a band and it happened that Fareed was going to be in town, so I called the tabla player Sameer Chatterjee, and we rehearsed like crazy. We did a gig and a couple of record labels showed up and were interested, but the project fell apart. There was a voice in the back of my head that said "this doesn't feel right." I wasn't going to be able to make an album with that band and really be able to look at myself in the mirror every day. So, I disbanded the whole thing. I was disillusioned and pursued my quartet stuff.

Then I met Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss and it was like "Wow." I started feeling that this idea could work. Of course, I was growing as a musician and really felt like it was something that could be captivating for the average listener, yet be something filled with a lot of integrity, as well as a situation we could all learn from. I think of where we were when we made our debut album Apti and where we are now, and there's no comparison. We're at an extremely high level compared to the album. I'm really looking forward to that band recording again. It's a really high priority for me.

AAJ: You just rereleased Yatra digitally. How do you look back at it?

RM: The idea of rereleasing it was really fun. I'm happy for it to be back out in the world again. I think for a guy who was 24, it's a pretty good record. It would be cool to remaster it. It's a live to two-track recording, so there's not much that can be done to it. It has a lot of sentimental value. A lot of that stuff was written after I went to India in 1994, which was the first time I had been there in 11 years, and as an adult. So, I know exactly where a lot of the inspiration for that music came from. It was my first experience leading a band and feeling that I had real musical relationships with people in Chicago. I didn't feel like a student, I felt like a real musician. So, the album reflects that stuff. I remember working on the cover with the designer. Ten albums later, it's just kind of funny what you think is important early on. You're making your first album and there are a lot of misguided notions that go into it and that's because you're not sure you'll ever make another one again. [laughs] There are a couple of tunes on the album that are really good that I'd like to bring back and play again.

AAJ: Tell me how the MSG group came together.

RM: Ronan Guilfoyle was someone I'd been hearing about for a while. People compared his work to Steve Coleman and I also later learned he is sort of a forefather of creative improvised music in Ireland. We finally met at the Calgary Jazz Festival a few years ago and hit it off. He was more familiar with my work than I was with his, but no matter. I heard about Chander Sardjoe from Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman, who both said he was a rhythmic monster. He's a guy who can seemingly play any polyrhythm and make music out of it. He's also someone who can play any of Steve Coleman's music off the top of his head. More than anything, I knew that both of them had seriously delved into Carnatic music with a particular focus on its rhythmic aspects. Chander had gone to India and thoroughly dissected many concepts of Carnatic rhythm and Ronan has actually written a wonderful book about rhythm titled Creative Rhythmic Concepts For Jazz Improvisation that everyone should know about.

We all talked on-and-off about doing something for a while but needed the right opportunity. Ronan still lives in Dublin and Chander was living in Amsterdam, though he recently moved to Paris. So, it wasn't like we could rehearse on a whim. My quartet was booked for the Brecon Jazz Festival in Wales and Dublin's Improvised Music Company (IMC), an amazing presenting organization, contacted me about bringing my quartet to the Kilkenny Arts Festival. That was not financially feasible for them, so I suggested premiering this trio. They loved the idea. We rehearsed for a day before the gig and we had the instant hook-up we all expected and the gig was a great success.

AAJ: Describe the chemistry you all share.

RM: We all have similar influences within both jazz and non-Western music, but have garnered similar but different information and resultant musical attitudes from those sources. We see eye-to-eye, but simultaneously learn a lot from each other. We also have a penchant for groove. I had written several pieces for my quartet that I never recorded and they ended up being perfect for this trio. The rhythmic propulsion is second to none, as far as I'm concerned. The tunes are rather skeletal in nature, but fill up very nicely as we are all playing rhythm, harmony and melody at once. Our roles are flexible and we seem to break down some of the preconceived notions of what a saxophone trio can do or is supposed to do.

AAJ: That's one silly band name and album title.

RM: It's just the first letters of our last names. They didn't want to help me find a name so I went with what was easy and funny. MSG makes everything taste good. That's our motto. [laughs] IMC ran with it and set up a photo shoot in a noodle shop. Tasty! seemed like a great name for the album—at least to me!

AAJ: You lead or co-lead several bands. What's your philosophy as a bandleader?
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