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Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bird Calls

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Alto saxophonist and composer Rudresh Mahanthappa has usually been most riveting when engaged in collaborative projects. While Raw Materials, his duo with pianist Vijay Iyer, is probably most renowned, Mahanthappa’s best creative partnerships have often been with fellow alto players, including Steve Lehman in Dual Identity, Bunky Green in Apex and the Carnatic master Kadri Gopalnath on the 2008 record Kinsmen.

With Bird Calls, we can put Charlie Parker at or near the top of that distinguished list. The influence of Parker has been apparent in Mahanthappa’s style as much for the way he attacks a song with an uncompromising blend of rapid force and lyrical flow as for any specifics in harmony or rhythm. But this album puts Mahanthappa’s enriched Parker scholarship on ingenious display, using different elements of songs from Bird’s catalog as inspirations, interpolations, excerpts and deconstructions for eight of Mahanthappa’s own compositions and five snippets entitled “Bird Calls.” Some connections are fairly obvious (especially with the publicity materials and liner notes providing a cheat sheet). “Both Hands” removes the rests from the melody of Bird’s “Dexterity” to further tromp the throttle. “Maybe Later” keeps the rhythm but changes the notes to Bird’s indelible solo from “Now’s the Time.” The links between “On the DL” and Bird’s “Donna Lee,” or “Sure Why Not?” and “Confirmation,” are less apparent.

More to the point, however, Bird Calls uses the inspiration of Parker to channel Mahanthappa’s abundant energy. He wields the familiar riff from “Parker’s Mood” into an incandescent, modern alto workout that sprawls but never goes awry, becoming a brand new song that pays tribute to his 2-year-old son with the title “Talin Is Thinking.” Further juice is provided by trumpet phenom Adam O’Farrill (the 20-year-old son of Arturo O’Farrill) in the Dizzy Gillespie role, and by dynamo drummer Rudy Royston, a superb choice for this setting. (Pianist Matt Mitchell and bassist François Moutin round out the band.)

You don’t have to be a Parker acolyte to appreciate Bird Calls-indeed, bebop literalists will be disappointed by the frequently torrid liberties taken. But if you crave the jolt of a horn player on fire, you’ll be drawn to these conflagrations whether or not you recognize Bird shadow-dancing in the light.

Originally Published