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.

There is an alto player who we both know. When I moved to New York, I had one CD out that I made with a band in Chicago. Of course I was passing around when I got to town, trying to meet people and stuff. I gave this guy a copy of the album, and it had some Indian artwork on the cover. I ran into the guy later and I said, "Hey man, did you ever listen to that CD I gave you?" He was just like, "Yeah! But you know I told you I love Indian music, of course I liked it!!" And it's a total jazz record, there's a rhythm changes tunes on there, there's a blues and it's not even that I don't know whether he listened to it or not. It's more like the blinders were so being worn so overtly in the industry. For a long time I felt like I would always be perceived as "that Indian alto player."

GC: And yet you still want to make Indian music a part of it?

RM : Absolutely.

GC: Was there ever a thought that maybe you wanted to do the opposite?

RM: Like playing jazz!?

GC: Or something?

RM: Not musically. I'll say this, for example. I can't say that I was trying figure out how to avoid it. But for a long time, Vijay Iyer and I—we joke about it now, but it still comes up—we called it the "you guys" phenomenon. People would say, "Man, I am going to come check 'you guys' out." Whenever we heard that, it sounded like "you two 'Indian' guys." It didn't matter if we were doing gigs separately; there was always this assumption that we were considered as one person. We were the two Indian- American Jazz musicians and we worked together a lot. But I feel like if we weren't Indian, an extreme minority within Jazz, if we just been two guys that worked together a lot, or maybe black or white—we wouldn't have experienced that whole life of "Oh you guys are just one thing. You guys do everything together." So that was something I feel like we made a conscious effort to defuse.

GC: So you are performing more independently now?

RM : Yes, the only thing we really do together is this duo stuff. We have this duo called Raw Materials, a precious, special group. I mean we have been playing together for almost 17 years now. But a lot of the other things we're doing are separate. From a marketing perspective, I had some Indian iconography artwork on that first record, but I don't see myself doing that again. It's not because I'm trying to run away from it, but it doesn't even seem appropriate. It doesn't even seem who I am anymore. I think back then I was really in the thick of it, in 1994 I felt like, "Oh, yeah, got to put something Indian on the cover!"

GC: You want to talk about Apex? (Pi Recordings, 2010).

RM: Yea. Apex was a great, very timely album because I had done the two previous albums there. Kinsmen (Pi Recordings, 2008) is a collaboration with Kadri Gopalnath who is this great Carnatic South-Indian alto player. Then I did this trio record with tabla and guitar with Dan Weiss and Rez Abbasi, so it felt great to go make a jazz record, to really play rhythm changes and blues. It's collaboration with Bunky Green, the legendary alto player who is now 76 years old. We've been friends for a very long time, almost 20 years, and we'd been talking about trying to do something for a very long time. Things just finally lined up in a way that it seemed like the right time to make the album. Also, everyone's schedules were really wide open.

Bunky is from Chicago—he doesn't live there anymore—but he's a little bit older than Jack DeJohnette, so they kind of came up together. But Bunky is senior to Jack. He was out playing gigs while Jack was still a student, so they actually had never played together. They had wanted to play together for a long time. When I mentioned the project to Jack, he said, "Maybe I can be a part of it, that would be great." Jason Moran had done a previous album with Bunky that Steve Colman had produced, so he wanted to be a part of it—and it just lined up. I wrote four or five tunes and Bunky wrote four or five—it was a real gas. It was really great, the lovely interaction was really happening and Bunky and had this way of communicating as friends and musically that's really special to me and I think the album really captured that. It was like two guys speaking some modern alto language to each other. It was really a lot of fun; it was exciting.

GC: What are you going to be doing at the North Sea Jazz Festival?

RM: That was a nice surprise. The North Sea used to have an Artist in Residence program where they would have very famous musicians like Dave Holland, Michael Brecker, and Charlie Haden. Somebody would come in and lead six or seven groups. This year, they changed the format a little bit. They're calling it the Carte Blanche program, where they pick two younger people to do several activities over the course of the weekends. I am really excited about that. The first night is going to be Apex with Bunky, and the second night is going to be my Indo-Pak Coalition Trio with Dan Weiss on drums and tabla and Rez Abassi on guitar. And the third night is going to be my newest group, which is an electric group where I'm playing alto but with some effects and laptop programming. This group has David Gilmore on guitar, Richard Rabbit Brown, who is a great electric bassist that lives in Toronto, Damion Reid on drums and Anand Ananto Krisna on mridangam, a South-Indian drum. He is one of the greatest players in the world right now. We are really happy to have him on there.

All the music we're playing is actually a direct result of my Guggenheim Fellowship. The band actually recorded back in 2008, but I was waiting for the right opportunity for the album to come out. But the music turned out really, really well, and the band has actually played a lot in Europe. We just finished a tour over this month, so we're really in good shape. We really rock! It's called Shandi. Shandi is a Sanskrit word that refers to twilight, the period between dusk and dawn, and it also refers to the period of time between the destruction of one universe and the creation of the next.

GC: Would you say you primarily do your own gigs or, obviously you're playing with Jack Dejohnette on this tour but, what advice would you give to someone if they wanted to be a bandleader? How did you see yourself—well, how would you describe your voyage from student to where you are now and how would you advise someone if they wanted to get their hopes up to get there?

RM: Well, I don't know, I think ultimately if you stick to your guns and maintain your integrity, your path just kind of unfolds for you. I didn't plan on being exclusively a leader and I always kind of hoped I'd do more stuff as a sideman. But I quickly saw that I have kind of an uncompromising way. I'm not the kind of musician that shows up and just plays the gig. Ultimately, my goal became, hopefully when I do get called in as a sideman it's going to be because somebody wants me specifically not because they need an alto player. Fortunately, it's now because someone really wants my sound, which is great. It has only started happening over the last two, three years. I feel like I have a lot of admirers but it does not necessarily mean they hire me. People come and see me play. If they don't hire me, that's fine. There are people much better suited to be an alto sideman and more power to them.

I was always trying to write and lead. I don't know if this is real advice, but I started trying to lead bands when I was in the 9th grade, and I wrote little tunes with my school friends. We would at least try to play at the school town show every year; maybe we would do a couple of little backyard parties in the summer. In Boulder, Colorado, where I grew up, there's this outdoor pedestrian mall that's famous for street entertainers like tightrope walkers, fire-eaters, and a whole lot of music out there too. My parents, for some odd reason, would let me go out there in junior high and just play on my Saturday afternoons with my case open. I'd make two, three bucks. But then when I got to high school, I started getting my band out there, and we were trying to write these fusion heads. We were more or less like a punk band. We would—very poorly—try to play Weather Report tunes, and we'd also written a couple of tunes. We were trying to play Steps Ahead tunes, whatever. So I was always trying to lead from a really, really young age, so I think there was something personality-wise that was conducive to that.

But I think the key to it is this: I think everyone needs to write. Even if you write tunes and never play them, writing just makes you stronger. It makes you a stronger musician, makes you a stronger improviser, and improves your ears. It does everything for you and changes how you hear music. I think that is really important, and I don't think everybody has to lead to tell you the truth. I think there is a really interesting dynamic out there right now where there is a kind of prescribed "I'm going to get my bachelor's, move to New York, maybe get my master's. I need to write 10 tunes and I need to self-produce a CD before I'm 26." There's a glut of a lot of music that just sounds the same, and a very lot of well-played music that maybe doesn't have an individual sound. It's kind of underdeveloped or just not really formed. Like, it's that you didn't really need to make a CD yet; you could have waited for three or four years. Go get some experience. Go play some gigs, actually that's much more important, as a musician it's more important to go play some gigs. Whether you're leading or whether you're a sideman, go play a few hundred gigs and then come to your own thing, as far as being a leader both musically and business-wise, with infinitely more strength than you would have right after your master's degree.

I think it's very important to try to find an individual sound and to go beyond just being a really good and virtuoso musician. There are more musicians than ever before out there, but the number of actual individual voices isn't higher than it was back in the '60s. The number of people that are actually going to change this music, or somehow move forward, or say something fresh and new is still really limited. I think it's just a question of mindset. Really think well on what is your voice, or is your voice you, or is your voice some sort of regurgitation of what's around you or what's happened in the very near past—think about this stuff. And I think if you think about all of that, whether or not you're a leader, if you've got integrity, it will be fine—it will just happen.

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