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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Transmission and Perception

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Friday December 14, 2018

From Music Without Borders: Innerviews

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Transmission and Perception
By: Anil Prasad

More than ever, jazz is a global genre. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s output is emblematic of an evolution that’s blown far past dogmatic, purist worldviews on what’s possible within it. His most recent album Agrima, released by his trio Indo-Pak Coalition, reflects a drive to expand vocabulary, unleash new ideas and enable a free flow of communication between band members and audience.

In addition to his recording and performing career, Mahanthappa serves as the Director of Jazz at Princeton University. He brings a sense of freedom, flexibility and expertise to his role that’s rare in jazz education. The same borderless vision that informs his music also translates into his teaching. Innerviews spoke to Mahanthappa about his current activities, as well his refreshing, unvarnished take on the economic complexities of releasing music in the current era.

Your previous album, Bird Calls, used Charlie Parker’s work as a compositional springboard for new, original material. What drove you to pursue that idea?

I came up with it a long time ago in the mid-‘90s when I was working on ‘Donna Lee’ with a student. We were working on it in little segments. We weren’t always starting at the beginning of a phrase. We were taking stuff out of context, and out of context, it sounded as modern as anything. It sounded like something Stravinsky or Bartók could have written. Some of the rhythmic stuff and emphasis of accents sounded really funky, like a really good hip-hop beat. So, it struck me at that moment that we have to talk about Parker as a contemporary figure, not as someone historical or a museum piece.

From that point, it was in the back of my mind to further investigate that. I had the opportunity to really do it because a promoter named Willard Jenkins was doing his series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. That year, he wanted to have three alto players somehow exploring Parker and whatever that meant to them. I’m sure some of the other guys played Bird tunes, but that wasn’t a requirement. I told him I was thinking about writing music literally inspired by things Bird played or wrote, and he was down with that. For the first gig, I wrote three things and mixed in some of my originals. Then I had a week at The Stone and did three nights with the Bird Calls project and three nights with Indo-Pak.

I kind of got side-tracked after that, but I wrote a few new things for Bird Calls. I was going to write a ton of new things for Indo-Pak too, but I got too busy and I wasn’t able to get both things done. Dan got booked for the rest of 2014, so recording with Indo-Pak during that period didn’t make sense. But the Bird Calls band was so good with Rudy Roystone, François Moutin and Matt Mitchell. It was amazing. Steve Lehman, a very good friend of mine, came out and said he was totally blown away by it. He said ‘That’s your next record.’ So, that progressed into writing more music and looking for a trumpet player. I really wanted to sonically evoke the sound of Parker’s front line, which always involved a trumpet player like Miles, Dizzy, Fats Navarro, or Herb Pomeroy. I asked around, including a couple of famous trumpet players, but they were either unresponsive or not interested. Then I ran into Steve Bernstein who said he knew Adam O’Farrill and that I had to check him out. I went on YouTube and stumbled on an audition video he made where he was playing a Bird tune like ‘Now’s the Time’ or ‘Billie’s Bounce.’ The first couple of choruses were very straight-ahead but by the third chorus, he gets into some other shit and I thought ‘What the f***? This is the guy.’ I emailed him and said this is what I’m thinking about. He was super stoked.

Compositionally, the music on Bird Calls probably sounds like a lot of my other music. It’s not like it’s a grand departure. But because of the Parker orientation, people put a different set of ears on when they listen to it. Maybe people listened to it who otherwise would avoid my music. The music got played on radio stations my other records never do. The whole thing kind of makes me laugh in a way. I do think the album is great. Everybody played so well and live, the band is awesome.

Parker died at age 34. Was there an element of contemplating what Parker might have done had he lived longer?

I’ve always been contemplating that. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve always wondered what he would have done in the ’70s. Would he have been into electronics like Eddie Harris? Would he have played EWI? Would he write stuff like Steve Coleman today? Obviously, I didn’t know the guy, but I would like to think he would have always been on the cutting edge. He wouldn’t have rested on his laurels or on a particular genre, even though he helped create the genre. He would have continued to explore. That was the nature of his way.

The album isn’t called Bird Calls because it’s about a bird singing. It means ‘Bird calls upon us to be the best musicians we can be in whatever we choose to do.’ I think very few people understood that meaning.

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