Ethnicity served as loose inspiration on tenor saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's previous recording, Black Water (Red Giant). With Mother Tongue, the sociological interests take a more literal role. Armed with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, Mahanthappa asked questions to native speakers of some of the various languages spoken in India. He transcribed their responses into melodies and used this material as the basis for most of the music.
Mahanthappa, along with pianist and frequent collaborator Vijay Iyer, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, stretch these oddly contoured melodies over a dry, distantly funky 4/4 beat-a sound borrowed directly from Steve Coleman's music. But Mahanthappa's introverted and somewhat flat-footed engagement with the material blunts much of the music's impact, and over the course of the recording, the concept begins to pall.
The few songs the band includes here that don't, at least to this listener's ears, derive from voice transcriptions inspire less restrained performances from everyone and hint at the real power of this band. The roaring opener, "The Preserver," is the first and best example. The band references a classic hard-bop sound, but what they play is many times more compact and intense. Mahanthappa's biting attack pairs a Coltrane influence with an incisive, exacting articulation, which absolutely soars here, but the rest of Mother Tongue never matches the power of that opening statement.