Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Before & After with Rudresh Mahanthappa

At the Barcelona Jazz Festival, the great alto saxophonist reflects on technique, culture and tradition

Rudresh Mahanthappa and Ashley Khan

Talking music with Rudresh Mahanthappa can be both fun and feisty-or, more accurately, it is fun because of the feistiness. Place that boisterous conversation in the sleekly modern interior of Monvinic, Barcelona’s leading wine-focused restaurant, during the height of that city’s world-class jazz festival (Oct. 29 to be exact) and one has the ingredients for a spirited and satisfying event on many levels.

Our Before & After session took place before a gathering of Catalan jazz fans in one of the restaurant’s private dining rooms. Mahanthappa had just arrived to play the penultimate date of a brief European tour with his quartet Samdhi. Later that evening, with guitarist David Gilmore, electric bassist Rich Brown and drummer Damion Reid, Mahanthappa performed a powerful set of new compositions flavored with echoes of 1970s fusion and modern-sounding effects and loops triggered on his laptop.

1. Jack DeJohnette

“Zoot Suite” (from Special Edition, ECM). Arthur Blythe, alto saxophone; David Murray, tenor saxophone; Peter Warren, bass; DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1979.

BEFORE: I have no idea but I really liked it; it has a lot of humor. It just had kind of a multifaceted approach, you know? Taking the tradition and not making a joke of it, but it’s almost kind of a commentary on what can be done with the same material.

Musically, it sounds like something David Murray might do. David has this way of re-contextualizing what he does. He might be playing Stevie Wonder’s music or playing with African musicians but he still shines through as an individual voice. It also has this very kind of traditional jazzlike swing kind of sensibility. And the bass actually sounds a lot like Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, like on those old Benny Carter records.

So when I just heard the bass, I thought I was going hear something of that era. But then, obviously, the phrasing of the melody is not really in 4/4, it’s kind of a polyrhythm, and then there’s a crazy tenor saxophone solo.

AFTER: I don’t think I own this album, but Jack has been one of my recent employers so we’ve played similar music. I know that compositionally he has this way of having one foot in the tradition and one foot in modern times. And he loves paying tribute to different musicians, like “Ahmad the Terrible” for Ahmad Jamal and “One for Eric” for Eric Dolphy. He kind of tries to capture the essence of what some important figures in the history of this music have put forth but in a compositional way, which is really great.

2. Joe Harriott/John Mayer Double Quintet

“Gana” (from Indo-Jazz Fusions II, Atlantic). Harriott, alto saxophone; Shake Keane, trumpet; Mayer, harpsichord; Pat Smythe, piano; Coleridge Goode, bass; Allan Ganley, drums; Diwan Motihar, sitar; Keshav Sathe, tabla; Chandrahas Paigankar, tambura. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE:I have avoided checking out a lot of Indo-jazz fusion projects. In fact, I often refer to this kind of fusion as the “F-word,” because for me it represents Indian and Western musicians playing in the same room but not necessarily playing together-a lot of cut and paste, more like a pastiche than a real synthesis of ideas. Being Indian-American, I live in this hybrid sort of state every second of my life. I’m Indian, I’m American; I’m neither and both, all at the same time. In understanding that, it’s been very important to me to not cheapen any part of my culture. Using the sounds of India in any kind of a superficial way is equivalent to selling my culture for nothing.

If you look at my discography, it’s only in 2008 when I started recording with Indian musicians, but until then I didn’t feel so well equipped to do so. I felt like if I was going play with the tabla player, I really wanted to deal not just with the tabla as an instrument but with the whole tradition of the tabla. Because if I don’t do that, then it’s just a glorified pair of bongos, just auxiliary percussion-not really addressing the culture.

I would say maybe it was Charlie Mariano, just because I know Charlie’s sound a little bit and I know that he was really fascinated with working with Indian musicians. But at the same time, I know that he worked with South Indian musicians and those were all North Indian instruments, sitar and tabla. The other thing that I actually never checked out is Joe Harriott’s Indo-Jazz Fusions project, but I don’t think it’s that either. But it might be.

AFTER: You know, there is this tendency to put my music in the tradition of Joe Harriott, Shakti and all that. Or what John Handy did with Ali Akbar Khan, which I think was actually really cool. But really I’m coming out of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and David Sanborn and Grover Washington. I mean, these are the people who made me want to play the saxophone.

Addressing my heritage and finding a way to synthesize Indian music with jazz has also been a cultural journey for me. It was a way of understanding what it means to be Indian-American, because for me there are no role models. My generation-I just turned 40 a few months ago-is the largest generation of Indian-Americans coming up that actually feel part of the American landscape, branching out beyond being the usual doctor or computer scientist. We are making music and art, writing books; we are in Hollywood. We’re doing what we have not been allowed to do before.

3. Kenny Burrell/Grover Washington Jr.

“Asphalt Canyon Blues” (from Togethering, Blue Note). Washington Jr., soprano saxophone; Burrell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1984.

BEFORE: Well, if I’m wrong I’m going to be really mad. [laughter] It’s Grover Washington. You can always tell it’s Grover: the way he articulates, the way he ornaments notes, the way he puts air through the saxophone. It’s interesting to hear him on soprano, because you usually hear him playing alto. But you can still tell it’s him. And I want to say that it’s this jazz album he made, because I’m sure Grover could play straight-ahead, but maybe he chose not to? I’m not sure. It doesn’t really matter because his presence was important.

But I’m going to guess that it’s his album with Dave Grusin called A Secret Place with “Dolphin Dance” on it. It’s from the ’70s, and he’s on the cover with a big beard and he’s leaning against a tree. No?

AFTER: I do have this one actually-on vinyl. [laughs] Well, what’s important to consider when you think about somebody like Grover Washington-and I think the same goes for someone like David Sanborn and George Howard-when they were doing what they were doing, starting in the late ’70s, that was really instrumental R&B. It was not smooth-jazz, not music that you hear in elevators and hotel lobbies. It was important black music.

I saw Grover in ’82 or ’83 at the first big concert I ever went to in this huge arena, and everybody was up dancing in the aisles. It was really a big party. Somehow over the course of the infiltration of the music industry the real soul of this music got pulled out of it, and it became the sterile thing we call smooth-jazz.

4. Charles Mingus

“Duet, Solo Dancers” (from The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Impulse!). Charlie Mariano, alto saxophone; Dick Hafer, tenor saxophone; Jerome Richardson, baritone saxophone; Rolf Ericson, Richard Williams, trumpet; Quentin Jackson, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Jay Berliner, guitar; Jaki Byard, piano; Mingus, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums. Recorded in 1963.

BEFORE: It sounds like Duke with Johnny Hodges. If I’m wrong, that would be horrible. It shouldn’t surprise me, but whenever I hear Duke play solo there is so much you can really hear where Monk came from. It’s almost like we forget that he was actually a brilliant pianist, too, because the writing is so brilliant and sometimes it kinda overshadows that. And then Johnny Hodges, I mean he’s just fabulous, if that was Johnny Hodges. If it wasn’t it was someone who sounds a lot like Johnny Hodges.

AFTER: Oh, wow-Mingus with Charlie Mariano and Jaki Byard playing piano? So it’s all a little bit second-generation. That’s really interesting. This is great, fabulous. I don’t know Mariano’s playing at all, actually. I guessed him on the Indian track because I know he’s done all this work with South Indian musicians later in his life with the Karnataka College of Percussion in Bangalore, so I had some friends that played with him. But I’ll be the first to admit I have gaps and he is definitely a big one.

I know a good bit of Mingus though I don’t own this album. There was this weird selective analysis class at Berklee in which all we did was analyze Mingus tunes for a whole semester and read a couple of his biographies. It was taught by Ken Pullig, who is a brilliant arranger himself, and it was really fascinating. Not only did we look at the music historically but also in its raw musical form, as far as what he was doing compositionally.

The Mingus albums I gravitate to are Cumbia & Jazz Fusion and Mingus Ah Um. Then there’s a funny one that I managed to find on vinyl that has three drummers and a huge band: Me, Myself an Eye. And then you have crazy tunes like “Don’t Be Afraid, the Clown’s Afraid Too”-these creepy stories set to music. He really was a total revolutionary, and he always had great bands: great rhythm sections and great horn players.

You know, Bunky Green’s first big gig was with Mingus. He took over for Jackie McLean before John Handy, and was only in the band for maybe six months or a year. He has told me some stories, but they’re not the most appropriate to repeat here. [laughter]

5. Roscoe Mitchell & the Note Factory

“Step One, Two, Three” (from Song for My Sister, Pi). Mitchell, alto saxophone; Anders Svanoe, clarinet; Willie Walter, bassoon; A. Spencer Barefield, guitar; Nils Bultmann, viola; Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, piano; Leon Lee Dorsey, Jaribu Shahid, bass; Gerald Cleaver, Vincent Davis, drums, percussion. Recorded in 2006.

BEFORE:The alto sounds very familiar. Compositionally it makes me think of something that Henry Threadgill wrote a long time ago … like something that came out of the AACM school. But it also sounds like it could be something much more recent.

It’s interesting, with a layered approach to composition. It’s more linear, it’s more about these kind of five lines at once, more about the texture and the places where these things intersect than really thinking about orchestration in a vertical sort of way, which is something that I do a lot in my own music. That’s why it reminds me of Threadgill, too.

But the alto sound is so familiar, I just can’t place it. I’m thinking it must be some friends of mine, actually. Now I’m really confused.

AFTER: With Taborn and Vijay. Right, OK [laughs]. I remember when they recorded this. I saw this band live much earlier, but I saw them in the early 2000s or something when there used to be the Verizon Music Festival. It was Mark Dresser’s trio and Note Factory doing a double bill somewhere in Tribeca. One time we did a double bill with [Mitchell] at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle. He was playing solo soprano, then Vijay and I played a duo, and then we did a trio improvisation at the end, and that was amazing.

Roscoe is great. I just saw him the other day in L.A.-they were doing a big tribute to him at the Angel City Jazz Festival. He doesn’t only play saxophone, but a little bit of everything: all the flutes, recorders and clarinets. He’s incredibly studied but also visceral, which is my favorite kind of musician: an equal share of emotion and intellect. That’s what I look for in music in general, and I think Roscoe really represents that.

6. Dave Holland Trio

“Take the Coltrane” (from Triplicate, ECM). Steve Coleman, alto saxophone; Holland, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 1988.

BEFORE: [immediately] That’s Steve Coleman doing “Take the Coltrane” with Jack DeJohnette and Dave Holland on an ECM album called Triplicate. This is a great solo: I transcribed it for some jazz pedagogy class when I was in grad school and tried to break it down theoretically. It’s Dave’s album, but for some reason I always think of it as Jack’s; I don’t know why. Great album. For me that was a real inspiration. I still listen to it over and over again.

I heard it in 1990 when I was at Berklee College of Music and had just become familiar with M-Base: Steve Coleman, Greg Osby and others. I was really blown away by what Steve was doing. At the time I was trying to experiment with taking a traditional jazz vocabulary, or bebop, and turning it on its side while looking at some of the root elements and also checking out a lot of 20th-century classical music-thinking about these theoretical concepts to generate a vocabulary for improvisation and composition. When I first heard Steve and Greg, I felt they were already kind of on that path and doing it at a very high level.

The other thing, for me at least, was I felt like the alto saxophone had stagnated for a while after Cannonball Adderley, and that the tenor had become the instrument of innovation primarily because of Coltrane and the post-Coltrane guys like Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman [and] Michael Brecker. Meanwhile, the alto was stuck dealing with Cannonball and Kenny Garrett, and then here are Steve and Greg making incredible waves.

7. John Zorn

“Blues Connotation” (from Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman, Elektra/Nonesuch). Zorn, Tim Berne, alto saxophone; Mark Dresser, bass; Michael Vatcher, Joey Baron, drums. Recorded in 1989.

BEFORE: It’s “Blues Connotation,” an Ornette Coleman tune that I used to play with my band years and years ago. This version’s really, really fast. It almost sounds like some sort of instrumental heavy metal band with horns playing an Ornette tune. But it was so short [1:07!]. I’m just going to guess that it is Ornette, but I won’t swear by it.

AFTER: They do sound like a heavy metal band. Well, Joey Baron can do that stuff, you know? He can do anything. Tim Berne-I’ve picked up a couple of his albums recently, especially the stuff he’s done with Marc Ducret.

I like how that was a very short statement. It’s almost as if it had gone on a minute longer you would’ve gotten tired of it. I think in that sense Zorn’s sense of balance is really great, whether it’s him as an improviser or as a composer, because he writes a lot of modern classical music too. He’s always been a champion of forward-thinking music and I think that is incredibly valuable.

I also like his story, you know? Zorn’s a self-made man. He was baking bread in a bakery in New York for many years and just kept doing his thing that ended up making him world famous, really. Regardless of what one thinks of his music, he has made a lot of things happen in New York that would not have happened without him. I mean, starting a label, looking out for a certain crew of musicians and producing albums, opening performance spaces like Tonic and now The Stone.

I’m a huge fan of the self-made man.

Given the intensity and energy in your own playing, do you sometimes find that your music is associated with that avant-garde edge?

I can see the commonality as far as the energy, but I think structurally my music is put forth in a different way.

8. Gary Bartz

“Swing Thing” (from Music Is My Sanctuary, Blue Note). Bartz, alto saxophone. Produced by Fonce and Larry Mizell, with a long list of session musicians including Wah-Wah Watson, guitar; Ray Brown, Eddie Henderson, trumpet; George Cables, piano; Welton Gite, Curtis A. Robertson, bass; Mtume, Bill Summers, percussion; Howard King, James Gadson, Nate Neblett, drums; Syreeta Wright, vocals. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: Yeah, I don’t know who that is but it’s really funny. I mean, what a hodgepodge of ’70s sounds, right? It goes through all this different terrain, the string arrangements. It’s almost absurd how overproduced it is. For me as a child of the ’80s, it’s very period specific. All this stuff is happening and the only common thing is that there’s this alto player, playing kind of bluesy stuff behind it or in front of it or on top of it. Is it supposed to be in the background, is it supposed to be in the foreground? It sounds like the tracks were recorded first, then the saxophonist came in and riffed over the whole thing. I can’t imagine who that would be if I had to guess purely based on the saxophone sound.

AFTER: Oh, well, that’s really hilarious. This was an interesting time because a lot of people were making poppish albums like this. I was just joking about this Joe Farrell track called “Disco Dust” that I used to listen to. I think Liebman made an album like this too. We might think of some of this stuff as cheesy now but it wasn’t then, it was contemporary. Jazz has always absorbed and addressed contemporary sound and culture, really trying to speak to what is modern, what is now. So while this track might be funny now, I’m sure it made sense back then.

The reality is, Gary is a fabulous saxophonist who has become a friend over the years. His playing with Miles was really great, and his later albums are really great too, like that one Atlantic album on which he plays “But Not for Me” [The Red and Orange Poems, 1994]. That’s an amazing album, and he’s an amazing spirit live, too.

The other thing I like about Gary is he’s an alto player who has checked out a lot of tenor players. For a long time I felt there’s been this schism: alto players listen to alto players and tenor players only listen to other tenor players. I never made that distinction myself. Maybe it’s not so much in Gary’s sound but his actual vocabulary. You can hear a lot of Coltrane in what he does.

When I first met Gary, I was living in Chicago and he came through with Cindy Blackman. I asked him if he gave lessons and he said yes. “How much do you charge?” “$25.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cheap.” So I went to his hotel to get him and we couldn’t find a taxi back to my place. It was a nice day, so I said, “Gary, let’s walk.” We got to my apartment and hung out and played and talked and then I made him dinner.

When he was leaving he said, “Weren’t you going to give me something?” I said, “Yes, of course. How much?” He said, “$25.” He had been with me for over eight hours that day and it was still just that. So I said, “Let me give you a little more money so you can catch a taxi back to the hotel.” He said, “No, I’ll pay for that.” That is Gary Bartz’s spirit, you know? It wasn’t about that money, it was about respect for one’s elder. That was really the lesson he gave that day.

Originally Published