CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Being a Hero Is Hard Work

On his latest album, the saxophonist honors his musical idols and proves himself worthy of similar reverence. Can he conquer the forces of darkness in 2020?

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Rudresh Mahanthappa (photo: David Kelly Crow)

Rudresh Mahanthappa left his cape and tights at home. But on this late-January afternoon, he’s leaping into action without them. The alert, brawny sound of his alto saxophone slashes through the air at Sound on Sound Studios in Montclair, New Jersey, where he’s gathered two dauntless partners—bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston—to answer the call of Hero Trio.

The band is attacking its third take of “I’ll Remember April,” a standard famously recorded at midcentury by Charlie Parker (for Charlie Parker with Strings) and Sonny Rollins (on A Night at the Village Vanguard). Mahanthappa’s arrangement adds a head-bobbing funk preface in 9/8 meter, then shifts to a bustling 4/4 swing. “Good,” he says, after the take ends with a decisive snap. “Let’s do another one. I feel like we were in it; let’s go again right now.”

Hero Trio, which Mahanthappa will release on Whirlwind Recordings, is so named because of the valiant musical figures it references: Parker and Rollins, to be sure, but also Stevie Wonder, whose “Overjoyed” provides another buoyant highlight, and Ornette Coleman, whose “Sadness” evokes the other end of the emotional scale. At Sound on Sound, the trio knocks out several takes of “Ring of Fire,” a defining anthem for Johnny Cash, with the same boxcar-shuffle rhythm as the original but an extra beat in the third bar, and a handful of flickering melodic ornamentations that speak to Mahanthappa’s interest in Indian classical music.

Having made more than a dozen albums of his own compositions, he seems invigorated by the art of interpretation. “I’ve been wanting to record a Johnny Cash tune for 20 years,” he says, to no one in particular, during a session break. (“Ring of Fire” was composed by June Carter Cash with Merle Kilgore, but the point stands.) “All of this music, for me, was kind of happening at the same time, around sixth or seventh grade,” he later explains. “Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash—these things have been rolling around in my head since I was 12 years old.”

That’s a prime age for the acquisition of personal heroes, including the comic-book kind. But Hero Trio is also, on some level, the staking of a claim. The album’s main promotional photo depicts its three musicians as caped crusaders, complete with eye masks, six-pack abs, and stretchy pants. The tone is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but it’s offered with sincere gusto.

“My kids are going to love this,” Mahanthappa, 49, recalls thinking of the concept. (He has two young children, a boy and a girl.) But he adds that there was another motive. “I’m always trying to think about humor in what we do,” he says. “It’s very easy to lose sight of that. Especially now, when it seems like music has to have some social-justice element. Well, what if I make music that’s happy and humorous? Am I not socially conscious?” He laughs at the idea.

At the same time, Royston and Moutin—who also both appear on Mahanthappa’s sharp, inventive Bird Calls (ACT), one of the most highly acclaimed jazz albums of 2015—presented him with a working trio possessed of superhuman powers. That’s how it feels to him, anyway. “I’ve been in scenarios on other albums where I feel like I’m constantly having to tone it down,” he says. “Like, Whoa, that’s too much! With this group I don’t really have that thought at all.”

 

Mahanthappa lives in Montclair, where we reconvene six weeks after the recording session, at a Mediterranean café down the street from the studio. The world has been changing, alarmingly, in the interim: just one day earlier, New Jersey announces its first death from COVID-19. What would soon seem like a reckless luxury—sitting at a table in a restaurant, without face coverings or fear of contagion—registers in the moment as a tenuous sort of normal.

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The coronavirus has already begun to wreak havoc on Mahanthappa’s plans. He’d been tapped, along with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, as co-musical director of “Fly Higher: Charlie Parker @ 100,” an all-star project conceived by his manager, veteran producer Danny Melnick. It was set to premiere in February at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, which got canceled—followed by the rest of an extensive spring itinerary, in concert halls across the United States.

“I wanted to do something Charlie Parker-related this year anyway,” says Mahanthappa, who’s amiable and unguarded in conversation. “The centennial project was one way it manifested. I didn’t necessarily want to record a whole album of Bird tunes, but I wanted to get it in there. And if I’m talking about people who made me want to play music, you can’t not include him.”

Though he was born in Trieste, Italy—where his father, noted theoretical physicist K.T. Mahanthappa, was on faculty at the time—Rudresh grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He was an aspiring saxophonist enamored of soul-jazz paragons like Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn. Then a music teacher in junior high school turned him on to the Charlie Parker Omnibook, which led him down a fateful path of discovery.

Mahanthappa attended the University of North Texas for a couple of years, feeling like the proverbial square peg: “The first year I thought it was my fault, and the second year I realized it was their fault,” he laughs. After transferring to the Berklee College of Music, he encountered a broader realm of possibility. (At orientation, he sat next to another saxophonist, Jacques Schwarz-Bart, who’d go on to become a member of Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor.)

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Still, there were setbacks. At age 20, Mahanthappa took a summer job on a cruise ship —his first professional gig. “And everything went wrong,” he recalls. “I wasn’t really prepared for the jadedness. I wasn’t really prepared for the amount of drug use and alcoholism. These people had been like me: ‘I’m just going to go out for the summer.’ And they’d been out for like five years. So that really freaked me out.” Making matters worse, Mahanthappa had developed issues with his shoulder, which made it painful to play, and with his girlfriend, who wanted out.

“I really started questioning all my decisions about choosing to have a career in music,” he says. “I was in physical therapy, I was seeing a shrink, I was fighting with my dad every day. I felt like my life was falling apart.”

It was at this low ebb that he showed up at a Friday-night jam session in Denver. “This guy comes in,” remembers Royston, the drummer at that session, “and just starts playing this stuff on alto—like ‘What is that?’ It was immediately different from anything else that was going on.” The two hit it off right away, and soon Royston asked Mahanthappa to join his band.

“I think that’s what pushed me through that summer,” Mahanthappa says. “So I always tell Rudy that he saved my life.” Not all heroes wear capes, in other words (except when they do).

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).