Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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RM: I feel like I'm getting to the point at which I can relinquish control. I can let go and trust the people I'm playing with or trust the situation when I don't know the musicians so well. I think I've been a control freak a lot with not only how things get recorded, but how stuff manifests itself live. Take Dan Weiss for example. No matter what happens, he can make great music out of a situation. It can be something that wasn't planned or even a train wreck, and he will make music out of it. So, it seemed to me there was another means to the same end, musically-speaking, that's really fun. I feel, especially if it's a situation that's already established, that I can provide less direction and we can intuit our way along, which is great. I'm grateful for that. And when I play with Vijay Iyer, there's a huge kind of ESP thing happening there. Even if we don't talk about anything, it'll probably be pretty smoking, so that's really cool. I'm trying to set up scenarios and structures that will highlight everyone's strengths and push us all to places we wouldn't normally go. That's what I'm more and more concerned with. I'm also more and more grateful and ecstatic to play with who I play with these days. I remember a time when it was more about me. It was "Oh, we have to play this because it will show I can do X, Y and Z really well." I don't give a rat's ass about that anymore. It's so unimportant.

AAJ: You toured as a special guest with Nguyen Le's trio last November. How did you hook up with him?

RM: I've always loved Nguyên's stuff. He's like me. He's always onto the next project and has a million things happening. He's a few years older than me and has a lot of traction in his career. He's had great support from his label A.C.T. which has helped him build his career, and that's fabulous—he really deserves it. I had seen him play in Europe and checked out his videos. I was kind of intimidated by him, really. He's just playing all this heavy shit. He'll have a project playing Vietnamese folk songs and play the fuck out of those. Then he's playing Jimi Hendrix tunes and playing the shit out of them. I was like "Who is this guy? I was kind of afraid to even say hi to him. [laughs] It was like "What am I going to say to you? You're running things as far as I'm concerned." Then one day, I got a two-word message from him through MySpace that said "Great music!" I wrote back through MySpace and said "Thanks, let's play and see what happens." He responded saying he was going to do some shows in the States and asked if I would be a special guest with his trio. He thought I'd be a good fit. I thought so too.

I was so honored that he called me. I decided "Whether or not it's a good fit, I'm going to do it. I'll make it fit." [laughs] It's really exciting. We had a great time. Nguyên is a really funny guy and incredibly nice. The hang is great. The other members of his trio are amazing too. Prabhu Edouard is a really smoking Indian percussionist. He's of South Indian origin, but he plays tabla. He knows his Carnatic stuff too. We were teaching some rhythm classes together at Cornish College and he's a really brilliant teacher. He was showing these kids some great stuff and they were blown away. Mieko Miyazaki flies on her kobo. It's a difficult instrument to play. She's constantly changing her tuning by moving her tuning bridges while she's playing. She's able to play some really complicated stuff. She's virtuosic and is a great listener. It was somewhat intimidating to walk into a trio like this where the people have been playing together awhile, and performing a certain repertoire. It's challenging to learn the music and also to find your voice within it. But it felt pretty natural. There's so much potential with this group. We each contributed a tune specific to us four playing together when we did the shows and it really put us in a different place right away. I hope there will be more work together.

AAJ: Tell me about your forthcoming album Samdhi featuring David Gilmore, Rich Brown and Damion Reid.

RM: That has to be one of the things I'm post proud of. It was the direct result of my Guggenheim fellowship. It's a combination of all this electronic stuff I've worked on, plus all this stuff I studied in South India. I took all the South Indian stuff and voiced it with situations that have nothing to do with that. So, it's me with laptop, some effects and programming. It also features the guys you mentioned, as well as Anantha Krishnan, a really incredible young mridangam player. The album is somewhat traditionally based, but pretty weird in a way too, as far as the Carnatic perspective goes. He fit into that well. It's been two years since it was recorded. Right now, I'm considering how to get the music out there.

AAJ: What do you consider your biggest challenges as a writer these days?

RM: It's hard to stay fresh sometimes. But more than anything, it's hard to make time to learn new things with all of the day-to-day life stuff. There's so much orchestration stuff I want to learn. I want to learn how to write for strings better. I don't know how I'll get around to any of it because I'm so consumed with regular life stuff and managing all of the music stuff I already have going on. I'm still doing a good bit of my own business stuff too, even though I have agents. The work never seems to completely disappear. There's a lot I want to absorb and implement. I'm always fearful of becoming that guy who writes the same tunes over and over again. There are so many guys like that out there. It would be a shame to be one of them since I've gone out of my way to avoid it for so long. It's one of the reasons why I've taken on the challenges of dealing with influences from outside of music in projects like Codebook and Mother Tongue. It forces me to not write the same tune again.

AAJ: You've also been known to make field recordings as inspirational tools.

RM: I haven't done that in a long time, but yeah, there was a time when I would screw around with that stuff. I should do it again, now that it's so easy to do with an iPhone. I used to record birds and was also really hung up on things that squeaked—like squeaky swing sets and turnstiles. It was like an urban version of Messiaen and the birds. It was like the "Symphony for squeaky turnstiles" or something. [laughs] It's easy to lose touch with that kind of childlike creativity or inspired frame of mind when you're thinking about how to pay your mortgage. I would like to spend some time getting back to that state of mind more often. I just want to work harder in general. I feel like I should be, but there's no way to have the same energy I had when I was 23 and multitasking like crazy and sleeping four hours a night.

AAJ: We're both second-generation South Asian. I'm amused by the consistent focus on your ethnicity in your media coverage. What's your perspective on that?

RM: It's a really unique talking point. It's something Vijay Iyer and I have talked about. There was no template for musicians of our generation to make jazz and art as South Asians. The industry almost didn't know what to do with us. Record labels and industry people would say things like "What you do is very interesting, but have you ever thought about doing an album with a sitar player? Maybe Ravi Shankar could be a guest?" [laughs] So, we had to forge our way ahead until we created enough buzz for ourselves. We had to be active enough that people started paying attention. And obviously, they honed in on this one unique point—the blatant, glaring point that we weren't black, white or Latino. Rather, we were Indian. There was a time when I was regarded as "that Indian alto player." Now, it's more about being respected as a fine modern jazz alto player. But people still want to talk about the Indian thing. I don't know if they feel like they're making me comfortable by bringing that up, but I know it's a comfortable entry point for them. It does beat "Wow, you sound like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy" though. [laughs] That's what people used to say about me for years, which is absolutely not true.

AAJ: Early in your career, you played in reggae and ska bands. Reflect on that period for me.

RM: I was just trying to make a living. My first real forays into being a professional musician took place during a very concentrated period. I played on a cruise ship in 1991. It was a small big band thing on Carnival Cruise Lines. That experience changed my whole perspective on playing music. It was my first professional gig and I was horrified by the music and the people. There was a lot of alcoholism, and a lot of "lifers" out there on the ships talking about what they were going to do when they got off the ship. And I didn't see that coming anytime soon for them. I actually kind of flipped out and ran back home to Colorado after six weeks instead of staying out the whole summer and going back to Boston like I was supposed to. I thought about quitting playing music. It was incredibly devastating and depressing. I thought "If that's what it means to be making a living being a musician, I don't want to have any part of it." I was so shocked by the whole thing.

At that point, I also saw the value of teaching. I knew I was a very good teacher and saw that as a way to perhaps sustain myself without having to play commercial gigs. I moved to Chicago shortly after that and I was unrelenting there. My attitude was "If I'm ever in a situation where I'm unhappy and my saxophone is in my mouth, then there's something wrong." So, I would go out and do weddings, playing "Hot, Hot, Hot" and when there was a saxophone solo, I would just play my shit. [laughs] Of course, I would never get hired again. Almost every wedding band I did a gig with was the first and last time I played with them. I thought that was hilarious, because I wasn't relying on it to make a living. I was teaching and more interested in playing for people who were actually listening.
About Rudresh Mahanthappa
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