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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Hybrid Energy

Anil Prasad By

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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.

I decided I'd rather play a reggae gig with people that were into the music. I was in a reggae band that was quite successful in Chicago called Charles Cameron and the Sunshine Festival. We're very briefly featured in the movie Love Jones, a beautiful African-American love story that takes place in Chicago. The director saw us play one night and asked us to do it. We did a shoot at The Wild Hare, a really famous reggae club in Chicago. It was fun. I also played a lot of salsa and merengue gigs during those days. They paid horribly and were always far away, which was hard, because I didn't have a car. They were also really, really loud, but man, I was able to get some real saxophone skills together playing merengue. That music is very hard to play. There's a lot of tonguing and weird, fast fingering involved. And again, I liked playing for people. It wasn't like putting on a tuxedo and playing a private party and feeling like wallpaper. In the meantime, I also had my own band. I was trying to get gigs and write music, but even with those reggae bands, if I had a solo, I would just play my shit too. [laughs] The leader thought that it was cool and even hilarious. So it was all good. In that sense, my role model was Michael Brecker. It's interesting to see what he got away with. No matter what he plays on, he's playing exactly like him. If he's playing with Dire Straits, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. If he's playing with Paul Simon, he's still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. [laughs] It's almost like people didn't realize that he was pulling a fast one on them. I always thought if I was going to be in those situations, I was going to have the same attitude. I'm going to play my thing and somehow make it relevant to this reggae or merengue situation.

AAJ: Charlie Parker once said "Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn." How does that statement apply to you?

RM: I always liked that quote. The first time I read it was probably in junior high. I had no idea what it meant. Then I understood there was this glamorization of Charlie Parker and his drug addiction. I've never dabbled in any of the hardcore stuff, but there was once a little part of me that thought "Maybe that's what you have to do. Maybe that's what 'livin' it' means." But to look back now at almost 40 years-old, what "livin' it" meant for me was trying to figure out who I am and realizing I'm not white and not black and that I'm something else. The question was: What does that "something else" mean? How does that fit into this country and the rest of the world? How do you stake a claim for yourself and your people? I think anytime one of us does something non-traditional, we're making it easier for someone else to do that. When I see a restaurant review in Time Out New York and see it was written by an Indian or Indian-American, I'm totally thrilled by that. I'm like "Go, dude!" If I look through gallery listings in New York and see an Indian artist, I'm going to go. Even if the stuff looks like crap, I'll go. [laughs] I know that South Asians come to my shows and they're obviously into the music, but they're also thrilled by the occurrence of the event of one of their own performing.

AAJ: Is there a spiritual component to your music?

RM: It's not religion-based, but when I'm really into it, I feel connected to something that is almost otherworldly. I can't describe it very well, but there's something that happens even when I'm alone if I'm playing something that's very special. There's also that amazing thing that happens when the band and audience are all kind of in tune somehow—some sort of resonance takes place that's actually more important than the music itself. So, to that degree, I'm spiritual. I was raised Hindu, but then we were left to our own devices come high school. There are a lot of great teachings on Hinduism, but ultimately, all religions talk about being a good person. That's something I make a conscious effort to be. I know I've gone through periods of being kind of a dick and I regret those. I know why that was happening. Certain things were forcing that. Surrounding myself with good people is as important as surrounding myself with good musicians now. I feel like I'm finally at a place where I really respect everyone I'm playing with as a person. There was a time when I was okay with playing with someone who was an asshole if he played really well. I have no patience for that anymore. As I inferred earlier, the music becomes secondary when everything else is in tune and it's those experiences I'm after.

Selected Discography

MSG, Tasty! (Plus Loin Music, 2011)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Bunky Green, Apex (Pi Recordings, 2010)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Steve Lehman, Dual Identity (Clean Feed, 2010)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Indo-Pak Coalition, Apti (Innova, 2008)

Rudresh Mahanthappa/Kadri Gopalnath, Kinsmen (Pi Recordings, 2008)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Codebook (Pi Recordings, 2006)

Vijay Iyer/ Rudresh Mahanthappa, Raw Materials (Savoy Jazz, 2006)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Mother Tongue (Pi Recordings, 2004)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Black Water (Red Giant Records, 2002)

Rudresh Mahanthappa, Yatra (RM, 1997)

Photo Credits
Page 2: John Rogers

Pages 5, 9: Cees van de Ven

All Others: Courtesy of Rudresh Mahanthappa

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