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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 at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival
Rudresh Mahanthappa at the 2018 Newport Jazz Festival. (photo: Marek Lazarski)

“Bebop undergirds such a vast swath of American music that its revolutionary nature recedes into the background,” observes critic Neil Tesser in his liner notes for Charlie Parker’s The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection, released by Craft Recordings this year. “It is now so familiar and comfortable, such an ever-present part of the family history, that non-historians can hardly envision it ever being ‘revolutionary.’”

Mahanthappa, unprompted, makes the same observation. “We think of Charlie Parker as so mainstream,” he says. “But it’s worth noting regularly that what he was doing was essentially avant-garde. He was on the edge like some of us are.”

That point was powerfully reinforced for Mahanthappa when he first saw Steve Coleman and Five Elements, during his time at Berklee. “That was totally life-changing,” he attests, referring not only to Coleman’s ornithological alto saxophone language but also the band’s way of cycling through standards with an arc of angular funk. “I think folks of my generation would be lying to you if they said Steve Coleman wasn’t a part of their history.”

That history shines bright on Hero Trio, most unabashedly in a pugnacious mashup of Parker’s “Barbados” and John Coltrane’s “26-2.” Even that whip-smart version of “I’ll Remember April” (with a groove recycled from a bonus track on Bird Calls) suggests a Five Elements influence.

Mahanthappa has never been a protégé of Coleman’s, but after moving to Chicago in the mid-1990s—partly to earn a master’s at DePaul University, partly to cut his teeth around town—he did get to know two of Coleman’s old mentors, Von Freeman and Bunky Green (many years later, in 2010, he and Green would cut an album together, called Apex). He became acquainted with Coleman at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. And it was there, at Coleman’s urging, that he connected with a pianist named Vijay Iyer, who would quickly become a sort of brother.

For many jazz observers, those brethren officially arrived around the turn of the century, as members of a determined cohort. Mahanthappa initially joined Iyer’s trio as a featured guest before being absorbed into the Vijay Iyer Quartet, which made several acclaimed albums.

Mahanthappa also set a place for Iyer on his albums, including two standout efforts for Pi Recordings, Mother Tongue (2004) and Codebook (2006). Looking back, though, Mahanthappa feels his artistic identity was too often framed in relationship to Iyer’s.

“There was a time when I was playing in his band and he was playing in my band, and it all kind of looked like the same thing, even though it wasn’t,” he says. “That really held me back, career-wise, and so much of it was out of my control. There was also this sense that there could only be one Indian-American jazz musician that the industry was going to get behind. And it wasn’t me.”

Mahanthappa sounds matter-of-fact rather than resentful as he makes these observations. There’s still a deep understanding, musical and social, between him and Iyer; their telepathic duo collaboration, Raw Materials, performed as recently as the fall of 2018, at an Asia Society gala. And whereas both musicians were undoubtedly on the margins at the outset of their careers, each has earned a prominent seat at the table without compromising; they’re both perennial poll-winners who work with a wide range of partners, honoring the jazz tradition in part by extending it.

But Mahanthappa has taken care to chart his own path, even in terms of how he accesses the South Indian heritage that he and Iyer have in common. In 2005, with an Asia Society commission, he traveled to Chennai to initiate a collaboration with Carnatic saxophone titan Kadri Gopalnath; it led to an American tour and the landmark 2008 album Kinsmen (Pi). Around the same time, Mahanthappa formed the Indo-Pak Coalition with guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss—and also won a Guggenheim Fellowship, using it to return to India and lay the groundwork for another album, Samdhi (ACT).

“All of that is part of my musical DNA now,” Mahanthappa says of his self-guided cultural exploration. “It just comes out like anything else would come out. If you listen to albums like Kinsmen or that first Indo-Pak record, I mean, those albums are almost 12 years old now. There’s a sense that I’m trying to prove something, maybe if only to myself. I don’t feel at all obligated to do that anymore. I’ve kind of grown into who I am as a person, and the music reflects that.”

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).