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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Integrity

George Colligan By

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[ Editor's Note: The following interview is reprinted from George Colligan's blog, Jazztruth]

I had only met Rudresh Mahanthappa once briefly; we played with different bands at a gig at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I was subbing with Miguel Zenon [while] he was performing with Vijay Iyer's quartet. I always found his playing to be super intense, which made me think that he might be a super intense personality. When we met years later at our first rehearsal with Jack DeJohnette, I was glad to find out that Mahanthappa is actually very down to earth, and has a very similar sense of humor to mine!

Mahanthappa and I toured with DeJohnette this past spring. I was determined to interview everyone in the band before the tour ended, and I was able to get to it just within the last few days of our trip. So more interviews are forthcoming. Here's Rudresh Mahanthappa on a variety of issues.

George Colligan: How did you come up with your linear concept? Who are your linear heroes?

Rudresh Mahanthappa: My linear heroes? It's nothing out of the ordinary—Bird and Trane, etc. When I was a student at Berklee, I remember the first time I heard the Dave Holland Extensions (ECM, 1989) album. Hearing Steve Coleman for the first time was really refreshing. As you know, he has a very different, unique approach. I was also kind of a big music theory-head, and I studied with this great teacher, just for a summer, in between being back in Colorado, where I'm from originally, and my years at studying at North Texas State. The lessons weren't saxophone lessons; they were theory lessons. We dealt with different ways of breaking up harmony, breaking up scales, looking at tone rows, lots of different approaches. So I was already thinking about alternative ways. Hmmm, alternative, I mean what's alternative? Nothing is really alternative or everything is. But I guess you could say I wanted to go outside of the jazz education bebop box, and I tried to develop some of my own vocabulary. The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was a really a big influence as well.

Anyway, when I heard Steve Coleman, I felt like I heard a much more fully formed rendition of the kind of concept I was trying to develop for myself. Coleman definitely was a big influence—Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and all the M-Base guys. Then when I dug a little bit deeper, I found out that Steve Coleman was actually very much influenced by Bunky Green. So Bunky Green is someone that I ended up seeking out—about the same time 20 years ago, when I was at Berklee, after I had left North Texas State. When I saw Dave Holland's Extensions and then Steve Coleman and Five Elements live that made a huge impact on me. And I think this stuff has a way of, once you start kind of developing some of your own musical, linear concepts, they blossom on their own and become other things. So I guess I'm more focused on trying to see where all the other stuff that I do know can go next at this point.

GC: Can you give us like a brief guide to understanding your Indian music influences?

RM: One of the things that I really liked about Steve Coleman was the conceptual aesthetics and the attitude beyond the music. I might even have this wrong, but I understood what he'd essentially done was taken a lot of rhythmic concepts from West African music. He would study the rhythm, not the instruments, not the music, but take the concepts and integrate them into something that was very much modern jazz. I've been thinking about ways to do that with Indian music; not just because I am a fan of Indian music but I wanted to do something like what Steve did with African music. I'm of Indian ancestry, and a lot of what I do musically is not only for the sake of the music, but an expression of what it means to be Indian-American. It's an expression of my identity.

I think Jazz has always been a means of contemporary social expression, staking your claim in the American landscape. So my interest in Indian music goes so far, goes much further beyond "Wow! That music is really cool!" Having said that, my goal has always been to look at that music conceptually. Indian music does not have any harmony, per se. I mean the pop music does, the film music does. But Indian classical music, for the most part, has no harmony. It's melody and it's rhythm, and a complement takes place either rhythmically or melodically. Oftentimes you'll have two melodic instruments in an ensemble. One is kind of the accompanist, [and] then there is a whole way of providing thickness and texture without playing chords. But I think melodically, both North and South Indian music are concerned with ragas, which in the West are often reduced to being described as modes. But they're actually much deeper than modes. The ragas are really very specific melodic constructions. They have an ordering of pitches, ascending format, and a descending format that might be different. And within all of that as well is this very specific ornamentation technique that is dependent on the raga but also dependent on the song. And then it can depend on the mood, it can depend on the time of day, and so forth.

As you can see, the melodic thing in Indian music is very vast; it takes a lifetime of study to really understand it. But I looked at raga improvisation as being very similar to constructing diatonic tone rows, or something like that. And there are a lot of places where this Eastern music and this Western music meet, as long as one keeps in mind that they are not the same. I was always really interested in Western music, in modes, synthetic scales, and different ways of breaking those up intervallically.

It's easy for me to think about one and the other at the same time, and the rhythm. Just the idea of thinking in cycles and not thinking about [an] eight-bar form, a 32-bar form, and eight bar sections. Most Indian musicians, they'll never be able to keep a 32-bar form, that's just such an alien concept for them! But thinking more about beat cycles, in this way: "OK, this is a melody that goes over three 21-beat cycles," that's a much easier thing to wrap their heads around because of their training. The way they perceive the music is different. Just dealing with beat cycles in general, whether they're coming straight out of Carnatic music, or whether they're influenced by that conceptually, has been really fun for me as a composer. It's not like 32-bar standard form sort of stuff, which I do like, though. I love playing standards, but I don't really go and do it on gigs unless it's a standard that's really special to me or something like that, because there are people who just do that really well. And it's the same thing when people ask, "Do you go do gigs where you just play bebop?" I mean, again, there are cats who do that so well. However, that kind of attitude goes against my whole philosophy about playing music here and now anyway.

GC: When you were first starting out, did you do gigs where you played standards?

RM: Yeah, all the time!

GC: When did you get to a point where you said, "I don't want to do this anymore?"

RM: It wasn't just one day or one year; it was very gradual. Even when I moved to New York, my band would play some of my originals, and they would play the old "Milestones" and we would play tunes that I just enjoyed playing. But then eventually, I started writing more and more tunes, and I wanted to focus on that. So I think it comes out of the composition aspect also. I still like playing all those tunes. Some of my first experiences were sitting in with a Dixieland band when I was 15, 16, and 17 years old. That was pretty much all through high school. Almost every Friday afternoon, I used to go play with this Dixieland Band. So I know those tunes too. I know "Avalon," "Undecided," etc... I can't say I was this great trad player, but at least I was trying. I was more into Bird then, so those guys were playing super trad tunes, and I was trying to play bop over it. But it was super traditional, I mean the band had a washboard, snare drum, and tuba.

GC: You didn't try to put some Indian stuff over top of that?

RM: [laughs] I wasn't even there yet! I think children of immigrants always have this—maybe not universally—but a lot of them have some sort of identity crisis. Usually probably around 17, 18, or 19, at the beginning of adulthood, where they are trying to figure out who they are. "Who am I? Am I Indian? Am I American, Am I neither?" I grew up in a predominantly white community in Northern Colorado, but I went to North Texas State University for college first, which had a huge African-American population. It just kind of struck me; I thought," Wait a minute! Well, I am not white, but I'm not black either! So who am I?" My generation is the first major wave of children of Indian immigrants. So I think I have a lot of peers that dealt with the same issues of trying to figure out who they are.

I think really jumping into Indian music and re-interpreting that or re- contextualizing that makes sense to me. It was part of that process of discovering who I am. And I grew up with some Indian music in my house, some hardcore classical stuff like Ravi Shankar and Shuva Laxmi, but what I heard most was a kind of religious devotional music called bhajans, which are not as complex as the classical stuff. I mean it's like trying to compare like church hymns to the classical music that was happening at the time. It's much simpler but very beautiful. It's vocal music, so that's what I heard mostly growing up.

The other thing I had to say is that a lot of people looked at the color of my skin and assumed that I was an expert on Indian music at even at college age, which was very intimidating. So it's kind of a longer road for me which I felt like I had to find a way to discover that music on my own without pressure. That was always weird too, to have that kind of assumption... I mean even when I moved to New York.
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