Rudresh Mahanthappa: Bicultural Jazz, Ever Shifting

By Kevin Whitehead

February 13, 2013

Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's quartet can sound like it's cross-pollinating Indian classical music and vintage Captain Beefheart. That befits a bicultural saxophonist who grew up in Boulder, where his Hindu family had a Christmas tree. For a long time, Mahanthappa resisted combining jazz and Indian music — it was almost too obvious a trajectory. But then he got serious about it.

South Asian influences had been planted in jazz decades ago, just waiting for further development. The super-complicated rhythms and fast solos of '70s jazz-rock fusion owed a lot to Ravi Shankar's India. Global beats and fusion both contribute to modern jazz musicians' astonishing fluidity with complex rhythms. Mahanthappa's drummer Dan Weiss is an adept tabla player, at home with India's expanding and contracting beat patterns, and ready to adapt them to the trap set.

On his new album Gamak, Mahanthappa takes off from Indian rhythms, but also the gamakas: the specific ways classical virtuosos tailor individual notes or move between them. They might attack a pitch from just above or below, or sweep upward as it trails off, or oscillate between notes. In these original tunes, as in traditional Indian music, those deviations are essential to the feeling and not mere decoration. Mahanthappa, who's worked with Indian classical saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, can get inside that authentic South Indian sound while turning it to his own ends.

Francois Moutin is on bass. In the third track, this is music of subtle inflections — Indian modes have more shades of sharp and flat than you find on a piano — and Mahanthappa has a perfect partner in guitarist David Fiuczynski, who worked closely with him in developing the concept. Fiuczynski is a microtonalist, sometimes playing in the cracks between the notes of the western scale; he makes Indian swerves and bluesy string-bends sound like part of one big continuum. The guitarist and saxophonist had been honing their rhythmic interplay in drummer Jack DeJohnette's band before recording Gamak.

Other musicians have tried to bind jazz and Indian music at the molecular level. In England in the '60s, saxophonist Joe Harriott and Calcutta-born composer John Mayer had their over-simple but occasionally inspired Indo-Jazz fusion. Guitarist John McLaughlin, after leading the loud Mahavishnu Orchestra in the early '70s, put together the Anglo-Indian acoustic band Shakti, whose fast stuff is still scarily good. Rudresh Mahanthappa plays other music besides this blatantly cross-cultural stuff, but it's easy to hear he's on to something. And the timing is right, when there are well-versed virtuosos around who can keep up with him wherever he turns.

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