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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.

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