Shaun Brady reviews album featuring collaboration between two saxophonists
Fairly often, acclaimed young jazz musicians like to repay their lesser-known mentors with guest spots and collaborations, in an effort to share some good fortune and spotlight an unsung patriarch. Such, on the surface, would seem to be the case with alto saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green, whose performances in New York earlier this year created genuine buzz. The two share equal billing on their new quintet outing, Apex, but Mahanthappa is almost universally acclaimed as one of the most innovative voices in modern jazz, while Green has been sequestered in the shadows of academia for most of the past three decades, hailed by a younger generation of forward-looking saxophonists but largely unheard by the general public.
So it’s Mahanthappa’s name that will lend Green the largest audience he’s possibly ever had. But if Apex is an act of charity, it’s not meant for the elder saxophonist; rather, it’s for those of us who’ve been deprived of his playing for so long. It would seem condescending to say that the 75-year-old Green holds his own with his 39-year-old counterpart. Entered into without preconceptions, the particulars of ages or discographies would simply vanish, leaving behind two fiercely inventive musicians whose individually muscular playing is only strengthened and enhanced by the inspiration of the other.
Mahanthappa was first exposed to Green while still in school, when a teacher passed along one of his hard-to-find albums. Intrigued, he sought the older man out and the two began a nearly 20-year friendship that only lately has blossomed into a musical partnership. Listening to the two players side by side, it’s easy to hear what so excited Mahanthappa, as well as other Green acolytes like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. All share a similarly tart, sharp tone and a penchant for blistering, mercurial runs. Green may screech around corners at acute angles while Mahanthappa rounds them with serpentine fluidity, but both are equally swept up by currents of ideas.
For this occasion, the two are accompanied by an all-star rhythm section: pianist Jason Moran, bassist Francois Moutin and alternating drummers Damion Reid and Jack DeJohnette. It is an intensely sharp, minutely attuned ensemble that channels the urgency of its two frontmen into a consistently vital group sound. Throughout the album’s 10 tracks, the intensity never flags.
Witness Mahanthappa’s “Soft,” which becomes anything but. Despite the sinuous, seductive theme, the interpretation is volcanic, from Moutin’s aggressive introductory solo to Reid’s crackling bursts and both euphorically building sax solos. Writing credits are split evenly between the two leaders, with Mahanthappa employing his trademark blend of rhythmic complexity and South Indian harmonic inspirations. Green’s tunes are, perhaps necessarily, closer to the jazz mainstream: “Rainer and Theresia” is a melancholy waltz with a noir tinge, while “Lamenting” is an aching ballad dominated by a starkly romantic Moran solo. “Little Girl I’ll Miss You,” on which Mahanthappa is absent, contains the disc’s most singable melody—a standard that never was.
Still, Green’s eagerness to expand beyond borders is as plain as his younger collaborators’. His tunes “Eastern Echoes” and “The Journey” are both lithe burners that position themselves somewhere between postbop and M-Base. And “Playing With Stones,” the one piece where Green steps out, is a perfect example of the close affinity between experimentation and tradition, as mathematically heady rhythms suddenly give way to an ecstatic, gospel-tinged effusion.
It’s not often one gets to peg a veteran septuagenarian as “one to watch.” Hopefully this isn’t merely a heartfelt tribute to an overlooked great, but rather the first step in a twilight renaissance.