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)

Back when Mahanthappa was still embarking on that hero’s journey—in 1997, during his second or third week in New York—he made another instantly galvanizing impression on the bandstand. It happened at a gig on the Lower East Side, where he’d been invited to sit in.

“All of a sudden this guy comes onstage,” remembers Moutin, who was the bassist on the gig. “At that time, everybody was calling him Rudy. I think he called ‘Giant Steps.’ And as soon as he started blowing, I was like: What?!? Okay, we have to meet again.” Numbers were exchanged, and Moutin soon became the go-to bassist for Mahanthappa, logging countless hours in cramped, unglamorous East Village haunts like Detour and the Internet Café.

“Rudresh can be super-intense playing one long note,” adds Moutin, reflecting now on a more than 20-year association. “But everything he plays is clear. Even when it’s very intricate, even when it’s very exploratory, it always makes sense because it reaches my emotions before anything else.”

Moutin’s muscular, hyperkinetic style on the upright bass has been the throughline on so many Mahanthappa recordings that the two musicians could be considered a kind of tandem. But his contribution comes into even clearer focus on Hero Trio, despite a paucity of actual bass solos. On “Overjoyed”—which borrows a reharmonization from pianist Danilo Pérez, one of Mahanthappa’s outside collaborators—Moutin’s performance is extraordinary, two parts pointillist and one part Cubist. On “I Can’t Get Started,” which employs a droning ostinato, the bass work is subtle but structural, and a brief solo conveys a flash of breakaway unrest.

Royston, too, has a strong showcase on the new album; observe his deft yet explosive work on “The Windup,” a Keith Jarrett tune also recently revived by Branford Marsalis and Julian Lage. He’s just as thrashing and dynamic on Parker’s “Red Cross,” which opens the album like a declaration of intent.

For Royston, the undercurrent of Bird in Mahanthappa’s playing runs deeper than repertoire. “Charlie Parker’s accents in his solos were total bebop,” he says. “Listen to [them]; that’s a drummer’s left hand. Rudresh hits these accents within his phrasing too. If I played his accents with the left hand, in Rudresh’s band, it would feel like Charlie Parker.”

Each member of the trio also describes a unity of purpose that’s hard to come by even for improvising collectives. “We’re all playing, but it’s just one voice,” is how Royston puts it, adding that he’s only ever approached that level of band cohesion as a member of saxophonist JD Allen’s longtime trio.

Mahanthappa cites Rollins’ main trio from A Night at the Village Vanguard, with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones, as his touchstone: a unit approaching familiar material with formal coherence but a spirit of total freedom. It’s no wonder the alto playing on Hero Trio feels so assertive and direct, and so inseparable from the whole.

“This record will definitely display a different side of Rudresh,” Royston says. “I don’t know that people have heard him in as informal a situation as this. I think that’ll let them know that he’s a larger player than they think he is.”

Moutin goes a step further. “Because a saxophonist playing in this context is more exposed by definition, I think this album could be the one that breaks him everywhere. He deserves it.”

 

You never know. “I’ve always had strange timing,” Mahanthappa says, referring not to musical timing but rather to the rhythm of the cosmos. “Kinsmen came out, all these people were nuts about it, and then the economy crashed. After the album was released, I’m trying to think if we ever played a single gig. It was really disappointing to have this huge visibility and not be able to do anything with it.”

After our dinner, Mahanthappa steps outside and checks his phone. In his inbox is an email from an administrator at Princeton University, where he serves as the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Director of Jazz and Associate Director of the Program in Musical Performance; classes are shutting down due to the coronavirus. The following day, he’d send out an official cancellation of the Princeton University Jazz Festival, whose second edition had been scheduled for mid-April.

“It’s just so messy out there,” he says of the global performing arts calendar in the face of a pandemic. “People are trying to figure out how to salvage stuff. I imagine this band will probably do a bunch of touring in 2021.” Whenever it does, the music is sure to evolve, building on the album’s baseline of rugged fervor and collective endeavor.

In the meantime, he’ll keep busy. He’ll have to make adjustments to his teaching load at Princeton, where some of his students are music majors with career ambitions in jazz. “Having regular interaction with folks of that age definitely keeps you excited. I want to know what they’re listening to. Their overall enthusiasm about playing music is a nice energy to be around.”

He’s also refining Shake the World, a multimedia collaboration with rapper/producer HPrizm and visual artist Eric Dyer. If all goes according to plan, the piece—a psychedelic riff on the sociopolitical valences of Mahatma Gandhi—will premiere in New York this fall.

Another event scheduled for the fall is the concert premiere of a new work for the Great Black Music Ensemble, co-commissioned by American Composers Forum and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago. “I sat in and played with them, and it was kind of like a religious experience,” Mahanthappa says, sounding eager to write for such a band.

Hero Trio enters the world at a time when heroism looks a lot like service: the work of a doctor or a nurse in a hospital ward, or an epidemiologist speaking out against federal inaction. To spend any time with Mahanthappa is to realize that he sees music-making in an analogous light—not on the same life-saving scale, but similarly committed and largely selfless.

This becomes clear after I ask what new lessons Charlie Parker might hold for us in 2020. “He just stuck to his guns,” Mahanthappa says. “And he was incredibly humble. To have that level of humility and virtuosity and forward-thinking ingenuity all at the same time—we should all strive for that.”

He pauses, for just a moment. “And I’m not so sure that he had it innately,” he adds. “Most people that have changed anything in this world have worked very, very hard.”

HEROIC TOOLS

For the past eight years, Rudresh Mahanthappa has been an official endorser of Yamaha saxophones, which isn’t all that surprising when you consider that he’s been playing the company’s YAS-62 alto model since he was a freshman in high school and his father bought him one for Christmas. He uses Vandoren reeds exclusively.

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).