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Rudresh Mahanthappa

Tom Greenland By

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Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa seems to have his fingers in quite a few pies lately: his quartet, featuring Vijay Iyer on piano, François Moutin on bass and Dan Weiss on drums, will be shortly releasing Code Book (Pi); Raw Materials, his duo with Iyer, also has an upcoming CD (Savoy); MSG, a trio with bassist Ronan Guilfoyle and drummer Chander Sardjoe will tour Europe this coming fall; the Dakshina Ensemble, an exciting East-West collaboration with South Indian classical icon Kadri Goplanath, is negotiating for a record date; Dual Identity, featuring fellow altoist Steve Lehman is actively gigging; and the Indo-Pak Coalition, with Rez Abbasi on sitar-guitar and Dan Weiss on tabla, will be at Joe's Pub this month to premiere Mahanthappa's new composition "Apti". Recently, Mahanthappa spoke about his cultural and musical roots and how these have affected his approach to composition and improvisation.

Born in Trieste, northern Italy, Mahanthappa was raised in Boulder, Colorado. His parents immigrated from Bangalore, Karnataka, smack dab in the middle of South India. Although he wasn't trained in Indian music as a child, Mahanthappa's parents often listened to bhajana, the devotional songs sung in temples and there were always a few Hindustani (North Indian classical music) records lying around the house. Interestingly, Mahanthappa only came to a greater understanding of and appreciation for Indian music after he had mastered North America's musical mother tongue: jazz. "Most of what I've learned about Indian music is something I went out of my way to seek out...Okay, so you're an Indian guy playing jazz and people constantly would ask, 'Do you know Indian music? Do you understand this music?' And I think one of the hardest things for me was to deal with that music on my own terms, because I think there was almost an expectation...Oh well, I'm brown! I must understand; I must know! [laughs] And I think the turning point was when I was at Berklee [College of Music, Boston]...I was in a group that went to play this jazz festival in India and that's when I really got with it. I went and saw some concerts that just blew my mind and heard some albums that blew my mind and I was, like, whoa, alright! And I really felt like I had my own entry point into it."

Mahanthappa had a chance to express and experiment with Indian music in a short-lived trio with Canadian percussionist Trichy Sankaran. More recently he has teamed up with Kadri Goplanath, an innovative South Indian alto saxophonist who has translated Karnatic classical music to an unconventional instrument. Mahanthappa elaborated on their collaboration: "I think he [Sankaran] was really surprised that I understood so much about Karnatic music. I wrote this stuff around him, because he doesn't know harmony, he doesn't really know form in the Western sense and so I had to write this stuff where he felt like he could just keep doing what he's doing, but there's all this shit happening around him [laughs], like some crazy forms and it's going through different keys and different meters... That was the first time that I was, like, 'Okay, I think I can deal with this. I think I'm comfortable with all this, to make this happen.'"

North and South Indian musical aesthetics have become an integral part of Mahanthappa's compositions and improvisations: "I definitely deal with all of that stuff from a conceptual basis, the way I deal with rhythm or cyclical rhythms or even melodically. I['m] heavily informed by that...I use a lot of beat cycles that may be—some are definitely ripped off [laughs] from that tradition, but some are just influenced by that. Like the way a rhythmic structure works: it'll be, like, a 17-beat structure that can go and do all these things, instead of thinking of it as in 17/8 or four bars of 17—just blowing that open so we can start then layering things on top of it. And... melodically, there's definitely some stuff I've written that, if it's not straight raga, it's more that I've tried to write something that maybe functions like a rag. There's this definite directionality: if you play this note, you don't go to this note but you can go to that note, you know? And so there'll be a melody that'll have certain points of gravity just within the melody—forget about what the actual harmonic structure is to it... Like the first track on Black Water ["Balancing Act"]: to me, everything is Indian about it... It's based on this beat cycle that sounds like seven, but it's actually seven dotted quarters, so you can do all sorts of weird shit there... The drummer can think about it as ten-and-a-half and he can think about it as seven at the same time, so there're all sorts of interesting polyrhythms that are open to him and open to me: not only can I play seven, but I can play three against the seven. And then the melody to that is actually straight out of this one rag...it essentially sounds like a C mixolydian, but with a b9 and a #11 [i.e. C, Db, E, F#, G, A, Bb, C]." Other techniques Mahanthappa has adapted from Indian music include composing a cyclic melody, or gat, that can be used as a point of departure and return, and employing tihai-s, odd-length rhythmic/melodic phrases that, played three times, resolve or 'land' at the top of the gat cycle.

Mahanthappa is excited about his upcoming gig with the Indo-Pak Coalition: "It has this weird twist to it because, okay, you have this trio and the two brown guys are playing western instruments and the white guy's playing an Indian instrument! [laughs] So it's kind of funny and it's interesting because Dan is an amazing drummer, but he's also Samir Chatterjee's most prized student; he's a really monstrous tabla player, but he came out playing the tabla after playing drum set. And here we [Mahanthappa and Abbasi] are: we play these western instruments. So our perspectives are very different. It's been really great to work with that group because we can talk about everything in very Indian terms—whether it's Karnatic or Hindustani or whatever—and then we can turn around and talk about it in totally Western terms."

Recommended Listening:

· Vijay Iyer - Panoptic Modes (Red Giant, 2000)

· Rudresh Mahanthappa - Black Water (Red Giant, 2002)

· Vijay Iyer - Blood Sutra (Artists House, 2003)

· Rudresh Mahanthappa - Mother Tongue (Pi, 2004)

· Vijay Iyer - Reimagining (Savoy Jazz, 2004)
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