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The Globalisation Of Jazz
Rudresh Mahanthappa's Hero Trio

by Robin Kidson




Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Trio


I wonder what Buddy Bolden or Jelly Roll Morton or any of those early jazz pioneers would have made of someone like Rudresh Mahanthappa? Widely regarded as one of the leading alto saxophonists of his generation, Mahanthappa wasn’t born in New Orleans or Kansas City but in Trieste, Italy in 1971. He wasn’t Italian or American, though; his father was a renowned theoretical physicist from India who travelled the globe with his work. So, Mahanthappa junior wasn’t brought up in Italy but in Boulder, Colorado where he absorbed the whole gamut of popular American culture from Sesame Street to Johnny Cash to jazz whilst still retaining an interest in his Indian heritage. Eventually he became a full blown, professional American jazz musician. Mahanthappa’s latest album, Hero Trio, was recorded in New Jersey but has been released by a British-based record label (Whirlwind Recordings) owned and run by an American bass player (Michael Janisch). The bassist of the Hero Trio is a Frenchman. Previous Mahanthappa albums have been released on the German ACT label. Rudresh Mahanthappa plays a Japanese saxophone (Yamaha) with French reeds (Vandoren)….

India, Italy, America, Britain, France, Germany, Japan; all go in to the international mix that is contemporary jazz. Of course, jazz went global a long time ago but it’s only when someone like Rudresh Mahanthappa comes along that one realises the extent of that Rudresh Mahanthappaglobalisation and how it increasingly impacts on both the artistic and commercial manifestations of the music.

As an aside, another thing which would surprise Buddy and Jelly Roll is what might be termed the academisation of jazz. So, Rudresh Mahanthappa didn’t learn his trade in night clubs or dance halls but in universities – specifically Berklee and De Paul in Chicago. As well as being a working musician, he is also Director of Jazz at Princeton University.

Rudresh Mahanthappa


But back to globalisation, one of its consequences is that jazz has absorbed influences from other forms of music and other cultures. Rudresh Mahanthappa sits firmly within the American modern jazz tradition but has also explored how that tradition can be fused with the classical music of his father’s land, India. He has travelled to India on several occasions to study Indian music particularly the Carnatic music of South India. In 2007, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship specifically to investigate how Carnatic music could inform and inspire American jazz: “My idea”, he said, “was to take that knowledge and really put it in a setting that has nothing to do with Indian classical music”.

The Indian influence was there right at the beginning of Mahanthappa’s career. He first came to prominence in the late 1990s working and recording with another Asian-American musician, pianist Vijay Iyer. They have collaborated together over many years in a number of different settings including just the two of them in a duo called Raw Materials. Their original brand of jazz has been well-received critically. It incorporates Indian influences but, in the words of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, “these are comprehensively integrated into American jazz and other musical dialects which create a stunningly vivid synthesis”.


Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa playing The Preserver live in 2007 at the JVC Jazz Festival.




Mahanthappa’s take on Indo-Jazz fusion can be seen in a number of other projects, notably with the Dakshina Ensemble and the Indo-Pak Coalition. The Coalition is a trio with Mahanthappa on alto sax, Rez Abbasi, (an American of Pakistani heritage) on guitar, and Dan Weiss on percussion.


Here is the trio playing Agrima live at the Litchfield Jazz Festival in 2017. Rock and electronica are in the mix here as well.




But, there are many more strings to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s bow than Indo-Jazz. Indeed, much of his work is straight ahead American jazz. He has steadily gathered a formidable reputation – since 2011, for instance, there have only been two years (2014 and 2019) when he has not been named alto saxophonist of the year in Downbeat’s Critics Poll. In 2015, he released Bird Calls, an album of his own compositions inspired by the greatest alto saxophonist of them all, Charlie Parker. This was album of the year in Downbeat’s 2015 Critics Poll.


We can watch a live rendering of On The DL from Bird Calls.




Hero Trio is Mahanthappa’s sixteenth album as leader or co-leader. He plays alto and is joined by long-time collaborators, François Moutin on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. "The album," says Mahanthappa, “pays tribute to several of my greatest influences and inspirations. First and foremost, my path would not be possible without Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. This sentiment is obviously not unique to me. My goal in performing their work is to convey the timeless nature of their indelible impact through a contemporary lens.”

So, of the nine tracks on the album, three are Parker compositions, one of which is mixed in with a Coltrane number. A further two tracks are standards which formed part of Bird’s repertoire. However, it is the spirit of a third musician, Ornette Coleman, which Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Triooften seems to hover over the album. Even the very notion of a pianoless trio owes something to Coleman whose work with David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums in the 1960s was so influential. “Playing chordless trio”, says Mahanthappa, “you’re very exposed but you also have a degree of freedom that’s very special. There’s also a great history of piano trios that have a beautiful way of functioning like a single organism, and I wanted to capture that energy”.

Mahanthappa acknowledges the influence by including Coleman’s Sadness as one of the tracks on Hero Trio.  François Moutin takes the David Izenzon role and plays some haunting bowed bass. Mahanthappa’s alto is suitably wistful and mournful – weeping, almost – but the whole effect is quite magical.

Even on the Parker tracks, though, Mahanthappa often sounds more like Coleman than Bird. That comes through right from the first track, an arrangement of Parker’s Red Cross. Mahanthappa reworks this in a thoroughly Colemanesque way – “It’s been interesting for me”, he says, “to take things apart – we play the melody divided into three different sections that are really three different moods, but it felt really natural at the same time”. The end result shows off Mahanthappa’s dazzling technique, every bit as impressive as his heroes, Bird and Trane. His improvisations are wonderfully imaginative with a playfulness and humour that captures the spirit of Charlie Parker even if the playing style is much freer than the Master’s. That sense of humour permeates much of Hero Trio, even extending to the CD sleeve which shows the three Trio members dressed up as superheroes.



The Hero Trio play Red Cross:




The issue of influences on Hero Trio should not be overstated. Mahanthappa is far too interesting and innovative a musician to be a slavish follower of others. He is his own man with his own style as shown in his arrangement of the standard I Can’t Get Started. This formed part of Charlie Parker’s repertoire but Mahanthappa’s version is very different. He takes it slow and the theme is often only hinted at. Sometimes his improvisations stray a long way from the melody but the melody is still somehow always there.

Mahanthappa’s originality is to the fore on another standard (and another Parker favourite), I’ll Remember April. The arrangement is upbeat and jagged, laying into the tune and wrestling it into submission. Mahanthappa rattles off chorus after chorus full of invention and creativity but just about hanging on to the melody. The way he effortlessly builds his improvisations as if he is having a conversation or constructing an argument has something of Sonny Rollins about it. All of the attention is, of course, on Mahanthappa but a careful listen reveals Moutin and Royston doing creative and interesting things with the rhythm. Like Mahanthappa, both are absolute masters of their instruments.    


The Trio plays I’ll Remember April.




Two of the tracks on the album are arrangements of more modern numbers: Stevie Wonder’s Overjoyed, and Ring of Fire which June Carter Cash wrote with Merle Kilgore for her husband, Johnny Cash. These might seem strange choices for a jazz album but, for Mahanthappa, they bring back childhood memories: “Outside of the jazz world, I first saw both Johnny Cash and Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street as a child and have always found their work to be beautiful, humorous, pensive, and utterly joyful. They have played such a strong role in helping me to look beyond the illusory boundaries of genre…”
Overjoyed is played relatively straight. Moutin’s bass is well to the fore, often taking the piano part much like Izenzon in Ornette Coleman’s trio. Of the composers of Ring of Fire, Mahanthappa says “Like Dolly Parton, when you take a closer look at what they did compositionally you realise that it has a conversational flow, with odd length phrases and extra bars here and there, and I wanted to capture that freedom”. His arrangement brings out the mariachi feel of the original but also adds a slight calypso beat – shades of Sonny Rollins again. He never strays too far from the tune but when he does, his improvisations around the melody are compelling. The interplay with drums and bass is also impressive.


The Trio playing Ring of Fire.




The other tracks on the album include The Windup by Keith Jarrett which sees the Trio in particularly upbeat and playful mood, navigating a complicated tune with consummate ease; a short burst of Charlie Parker’s Dewey Square; and a mix of Parker’s Barbados and John Coltrane’s 26-2.

Globalisation has its discontents but, when it comes to the arts like jazz, the way in which its processes can bring people – artists, makers, entrepreneurs – together to create a productive synergy is surely a force for good. A work like Hero Trio would not have been possible without the forces of globalisation ensuring a collaboration between an Indian-American, a Frenchman and an Afro-American to produce American-style jazz on a British record label. As Rudresh Mahanthappa says in the album’s sleeve notes: “…music is a magical force that binds humanity”. And Hero Trio is a magical work of art of the highest quality which will surely see more of the glittering prizes brought to Rudresh Mahanthappa’s mantelpiece. 

For further details and samples for the Hero Trio album click here (the price is shown in dollars but is converted to sterling when you click on the 'Buy' link).

Click here for Rudresh Mahanthappa's website.


Rudresh Mahanthappa Hero Trio album



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