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For Samdhi, Rudresh Mahanthappa Whips It Up
Article by John DeFore for The Washington Post
In September, jazz fans heard something new from star saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. On his album "Samdhi," he not only added electric bass and guitar to his normally acoustic instrumentation, but he used a laptop to whip up spacey textures and weirdly manipulate his sax's sound. Some customers were baffled, others delighted, but to the man, the sea change was old news: The music was recorded in 2008.
"It sat in the can for almost three years," says Mahanthappa, who will perform !"Samdhi" material at Blues Alley this week. "That was difficult, to see this thing I was really proud of just sit around."
Mahanthappa had hoped "Samdhi" would be the album with which he moved from widely acclaimed indielabel releases to one on a jazz-industry leader such as Blue Note. The timing was right: In the weeks before recording, he had released "Kinsmen," a CD that would make a slew of year-end "best of" lists and earn him a high-profile interview on NPR's "Fresh Air." "I had a lot of media momentum," he recalls. Then, the economy tanked.
Suddenly, "everybody was just terrified of putting anything out," Mahanthappa says. "The whole industry was too freaked out to take on anyone new.
"I really thought a major would want it," he continues. While the record was a departure, with occasional computer manipulation of his instrument and a more rocklike sound coming from electric guitar and bass, Blue Note had lately released boundary-stretching projects by Greg Osby, Jason Moran and others. But though Blue Note chief executive Bruce Lundvall wrote Mahanthappa to say he loved !"Samdhi," the music languished until European label ACT embraced it.
Mahanthappa didn't twiddle his thumbs waiting for the record's release. He has led or co-led roughly 10 bands in the past decade, and most of these groups are active to varying degrees. In 2010, he released "Apex," an acclaimed outing with veteran alto player Bunky Green. Last year, DownBeat's international critics' poll named Mahanthappa best alto saxophonist.
"Samdhi" may be a breakthrough with some audiences -- Mahanthappa says that the response has been overwhelming and that people who'd never heard him before are "going nuts" at his shows. But for many listeners, 2008's "Kinsmen" was the real arrival of an artist unlike any other. That album was the result of a long trip to India, where Mahanthappa worked with Kadri Gopalnath, a master instrumentalist who had developed techniques for playing Indian classical music on sax.
Growing up as an Indian American in Boulder, Colo., Mahanthappa was inspired by Indian music but had always been cautious about making it his own. He recalls feeling "an unfair pressure" -- partly selfinflicted, but also from schoolmates who didn't share his background -- "that somehow I was supposed to be an expert in Indian music."
"It was really difficult for me to find a space where I could learn about it on my own terms, at my own pace," he says. But hearing Gopalnath's recordings opened a door "to engage with Indian music. I was hearing it on the instrument I was playing -- instead of trying to imitate what violinists and vocalists were doing, I could connect in the same way I connect with Trane or Bird," he says, referring to jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker.
Gopalnath helped Mahanthappa do things few saxophonists could, sliding pitch to play ornamental notes in ragas that don't conform to Western scales. Mahanthappa began using his throat and mouth muscles in new ways, he explored alternate fingerings and he saw that the instrument could be modified: "Kadri has his horn set up in a way where he can do all sorts of crazy stuff, only holding keys halfway down. He's taken out the little spring rods and replaced a lot of them with rubber bands. I've held his horn a few times, and it's like, 'I don't know how you even play this thing.'
"The two players joined their groups for "Kinsmen," proving to Mahanthappa that he could work with traditional Indian players in a real collaboration. "My biggest concern was that it sound like a single unit," he says, as opposed to "cross-cultural projects where it's not really people playing together, it's people playing in the same room."
While he dreads the label "fusion" and all its connotations, he won't condemn earlier generations of hybridminded artists. "We're blessed with being in a time where we can listen to anything we want, anyplace. If you look at the '70s, people who were trying to reach across cultural boundaries, I can't really criticize them. They were really trying, with much less information."
Coltrane was an exception, he says, whose late-career discovery of ragas deeply affected the way he grouped notes together in solos. "He just soaked up everything he could get his hands on, which is incredibly inspiring. If he'd had access to actually playing with Indian musicians, it would have been really interesting. Maybe he wasn't able to convey all he was actually thinking about."
For Mahanthappa,the Indian influence is more than mere musical curiosity. "It's really about this issue of identity and staking a claim for Indian Americans being a part of the larger American landscape." In jazz, Mahanthappa and pianist Vijay Iyer (sometimes recording as a duo) have blazed trails in an industry that didn't know what to do with Indian American artists. Both are embraced today as musicians comfortable in a variety of idioms -- some of which they invented.
Mahanthappa says that while "Vijay and I will always work together somehow," he's hoping to streamline the number of groups he keeps active. He's hoping to whittle it down to "only" three or so.
As soon as he says that, though, he's rattling off possible exceptions, and it isn't hard to imagine a majorlabel exec getting nervous about a composer whose next project could be anything from an Indian-Pakistani hybrid to free jazz to borderline electronica. That Blue Note debut may not happen for a while. Happily, Mahanthappa's not slowing down to wait for it. (01/17/2012)