Rudresh Mahanthappa & Kadri Gopalnath

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has been drawing more and more on his Indian ancestry for musical inspiration in recent years. That was particularly evident on his 2002 outing Black Water (Red Giant) as well as his 2004 release Mother Tongue: Do You Speaking Indian? (Pi). For the world premiere of “Kinsmen/Svajanam,” commissioned by the Asia Society, Mahanthappa dug deeply into his South Indian roots in a fiery collaboration with Kadri Gopalnath, a master of South Indian Carnatic classical music as well as an innovator in adapting the alto saxophone to that complex and intriguing form.


In the past shown Mahanthappa has shown startling proficiency with the bebop idiom -- his sheer command and fluency at blistering tempos is coming out of Charlie Parker while his capacity for rhythmic shape-shifting is heavily influenced by Steve Coleman -- he revealed on this dynamic gig a newfound tendency toward emulating Indian double-reed instruments or Hindustani vocalists. This quality was no doubt influenced by living legend Gopalnath, who himself emulates South Indian double-reed instruments like the nagaswaram in his wholly unique approach to the alto sax. And while both saxophonists are heavyweight improvisers, Gopalnath is coming at it from a decidedly nonjazz approach.

Rather than being just a showcase for American jazz musicians blowing licks on top of Indian ragas, “Kinsmen/Svajanam” was an ambitious attempt by Mahanthappa to meld the two seemingly disparate aesthetics of jazz and Carnatic music into one organic hybrid. Mahanthappa extrapolated on some traditional Indian ragas and other pieces of music he had previously heard on Gopalnath CDs while also weaving in shifting harmonies and polyrhythms against the Carnatic undercurrent. The experiment was a rousing success, due largely to the flexibility that Mahanthappa and his American colleagues Rez Abbasi on guitar and sitar-guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums and Carlo deRosa on bass exhibited on the bandstand, along with their obvious reverence and empathy for Carnatic music.

Abbasi, who was born in Pakistan, has himself investigated this marriage of jazz and South Indian music on his own recent CD, Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds), while the rhythm tandem of Kavee and de Rosa proved to be keenly attuned to the intricacies of the five extended ragas that comprised “Kinsmen/Svajanam.” Judging from Kavee's swift and precise attack on the kit, along with his adeptness at dealing with the odd-timed ragas, it is clear that he has had some experience playing mridangam at some point in his musical studies.

The stage for this world premiere was divided into separate stations with Gopalnath and his South Indian colleagues A. Kanyakurmari on violin and Gautam Siram on mridangam all sitting cross-legged on a carpeted dais stage right while Mahanthappa and guitarist Abbasi stood stage left with drummer Kavee and bassist deRosa occupying a spot in the back. The set of music they explored together opened on a harmonious note with a bluesy-sounding raga which was kicked off by Kadri’s dramatic solo invocation to Ganesha, one of the five prime Hindu dieties. The second piece was a very complicated raga, which Mahanthappa treated like a ballad in 5/4 while the third piece of the evening carried a more traditional trancelike snake charmer flavor. This piece was highlighted by some intricate counterpoint between drummer Kavee and bassist deRosa playing against Kadri’s explosive sax work, as well as some near-telepathic call-and-response between Gopalnath and masterful violinist Kanyakurmari.

The fourth piece of the evening -- they were all so freshly composed that Mahanthappa hadn’t yet come up with names for them -- was a showcase for Kanyakumari, whose keening, vocal phrasing on violin served as an emotive foil to Kadri’s intense staccato burn. The fifth and final piece, the most dynamic offering of the evening, featured an extended guitar solo by Abbasi, who has one foot firmly planted in Pat Martino’s burning postbop single-note sensibility and the other foot striding into Shakti-land. It culminated in a furious call-and-response between the two great alto saxophonists; a volatile meeting of East and West.

Mahanthappa described his process for composing the material for this “Kinsmen/Svajanam” commission: “I had a bunch of his albums and I narrowed it down from seven or eight CDs to about 30 tracks. I was interested in what was going on, whether it was the raga being used or the rhythm or something else. So when I went to India, the first day I sat with Kadri and played him all that stuff, I asked him, ‘So what’s going on here? Do I have the raga right?’ And that led to some kind of extended sort of dissection, followed by an intensive woodshedding period by me. I spent that night I met him and the whole next day narrowing down the choices to five or six ragas that I wanted to work with. And then within each raga there are actual songs, so I wrote around those ragas and songs.”

With this visionary new work, Rudresh Mahanthappa is boldly breaking some exciting new ground while going all the way back to his Indian roots.

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