The sound of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s saxophone crackles with strange energy. The moment he begins to blow life into the single reed mouthpiece of the instrument, the quartet he is playing with comes alive. There is that typical bebop style intact, but then there is also some raagdaari in all of it. David Fiuczynski’s fretless double-necked guitar joins in, sometimes like a sitar and sometimes like a guitar.
At many points, the arrangements are like conversations — specific responses to each other without stepping on anyone’s toes. Is this jazz being blended with other forms? It’s difficult to miss touches of Chinese music and splashes of metal. A few hearing sessions the answers seem to crawl closer — these are interesting harmonic structures which seem to “redefine the possibilities of what jazz can be.” There are no patches. With such difference of genres, everything falls in place like it should.
There are few musicians who balance innovative and entertaining hooks at one time, and this quartet playing a piece from New York-based Indian origin musician Mahanthappa’s last album Gamak in a YouTube video, seems to be the answer. Gamak literally means a precise technique of ornamentation in Indian classical music. For Mahanthappa, “it is the beauty of melody as it occurs all over the world.”
In the current jazz scene, Mahanthappa has been touring the world with some of the finest jazz names. He is mostly known in India for his collaborations with Grammy-nominated jazz musician Vijay Iyer and his work with jazz legend Bunky Green.
“I see my music as an expression of myself. While it is a hybrid of Indian classical music and jazz, for me it is more an expression of my experience as a child of Indian immigrants brought up in America,” says Mahanthappa, who like many other Indian kids, was dealing with questions of nationality, ethnicity, and heritage. Growing up in an Indian home in Colorado, not really speaking Kannada — his mother tongue — waking up to devotional music played by his mother and listening to ’70s and ’80s rock mixed with a bit of Segovia and Chuck Mangione and jazz, it was a mixed musical experience for Mahanthappa. “People often assumed I was an expert on Indian music because of my name and the colour of my skin, even though I was listening to the same Western music as everyone. I became intimidated by Indian music and kind of avoided it,” says Mahanthappa. It wasn’t until 1993 when he came to India that his personal quandaries somewhat diminished.
He began learning music on a recorder and quickly gave it up to learn the saxophone. It was the idea of improvisation or people in jazz bands “making up” their solos that intrigued him. Like all saxophone players Mahanthappa began on alto sax, something that he plays with an improv-packed punch, and stuck to it. It’s a choice he has made consciously over baritone and tenor sax. “Alto always felt right for my body, my vocal range, and sonic imagination,” says Mahanthappa.
The synthesis of so many forms is beautiful in Mahanthappa’s music. Every instrument showcases its individuality but merges with each other organically. This is because he is concerned with cultural expression and his goals are derived from “heritage that burns within me, not just an interest in Indian music.”. “I actively avoid the term fusion for this reason. There are many situations or collaborations where Indian and Western musicians are sitting next to each other playing in the same room or on the same stage, but not with each other. This is usually because there is a lack of knowledge as to how to go about creating a bridge between the two musical cultures even though there are so many seamless paths between with regard to rhythm, melody and improvisation. I’m not picking some of one and some of the other and smashing them together. The synthesis comes from years of internalising the sonic ideas and potentials of both forms,” he says.
For now, Mahanthappa is touring the world and is looking at performing in India soon. He is also working on his next album, which will be out this year. “My goal is to make music that is always simultaneously smart and passionate, soulful and intellectual, and relevant to contemporary culture, while bearing a message or an energy to which anyone can relate regardless of background, race or culture,” he says.