Rudresh Mahanthappa in Pittsburgh
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s two-night appearance in Pittsburgh took place as part of the 2008 Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts, a 16-day performing and visual arts series. The alto saxophonist premiered Samdhi: Diasporic Connection, a suite inspired in part by his studies of ragas during a trip to India last year. So new was the piece, Mahanthappa admitted during an interview 12 days prior to the performance, that he was still writing it at that time. He began rehearsing later that week with his new band: guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Rich Brown, drummer Damion Reed and mridangam (South Indian barrel drum) player Anand Ananthakrishman. Everyone had charts onstage, which they followed with ease.
Combining elements of traditional Indian harmonies and rhythms with unhinged jazz improvisation, electronics and occasional drum ’n’ bass grooves, the nearly 90-minute piece was a landmark convergence of styles that didn’t lend itself to easy analysis. That’s due, in large part, to the fact that new music of this caliber hasn’t been attempted before. Granted, Kinsmen, Mahanthappa’s latest album, set the course. But while that album featured him sharing space with Indian saxophonist Kadri Golpalnath, the Pittsburgh performance put all the emphasis on Mahanthappa the bandleader and composer.
The music grew serious and intense at times, yet the mood of the evening was not. “When we got into town today, we heard a crowd cheering,” Mahanthappa told the audience at the start of the set. “We thought it was for us. Turns out it was a Sarah Palin protest. We were only slightly disappointed.”
After a Steelers shoutout (for some reason, an obligatory gesture with out-of-towners), Mahanthappa began a duet with his laptop, blowing notes that immediately played back at him, creating a harmony that gradually became dissonant and grew in sound until eventually the laptop sounded like a chorus of Indian vocalists singing over a programmed beat. When it faded after a couple minutes, Brown laid down a simple bass groove with Reid joining him. Brown’s role would stick largely to one-note timekeeping during much of the performance, but the number of beats changed frequently so he never became rigid. It dovetailed perfectly with Mahanthappa’s playing, which was filled with asymmetrical phrases.
In the first piece of the evening, all of which were untitled, David Gilmore engaged in a call-and-response exchange with Mahanthappa, acting as a good foil to the leader’s alto. Reid kicked the tempo into double-time for Gilmore’s solo, adding to the tension with a series of furious fills across his kit. When the dynamics decreased for Brown’s solo, the bassist stayed within a framework of minor, Eastern harmonies, using two (and possibly three) strings at once for emphasis.
The next section sounded like a raga crossed with a funky drum ’n’ bass riff. Gilmore and Mahanthappa began in unison and their dynamic surge left Ananthakrishman’s drum behind in a sea of volume. Eventually, his mridangam became audible during an alto solo while Gilmore made outer space transmissions on the guitar.
The quintet didn’t stop playing for nearly the first 45 minutes of the set, so it was hard to tell if they were segueing various passages together or if the music up to the point was simply one installment of Samdhi. Gilmore began the next section, producing ringing dissonances on his guitar that sounded like they came from another world. After the rest of the group joined him, he and Manhanthappa began another dialogue, this time over an Indian version of bebop that seemed to morph into blues changes courtesy of Brown. The laptop factored into later sections of the evening, sounding like an ’80s-era synthesizer and later producing the sound of a phantom violinist joining the group.
During the previously mentioned interview, Mahanthappa admitted with both amusement and trepidation that some sections of Samdhi were veering dangerously close to sounding like fusion. He might have been referring to the final passage of the evening. The lead instruments played a blistering melody over an extremely taut rhythm that was pushed and pulled by the bass and drums, trading roles and getting more intense as the music barreled on.
The night before their trip to Pittsburgh, Mahanthappa said, the group went into the studio to record the performance. Hopefully it won’t sit too long before its release.