meshing cultures, bands and generations, rudresh mahanthappa redefines jazz

rudresh mahanthappa. photo by ethan levitas.

With each recording he cuts and every band he take to a stage with, Rudresh Mahanthappa reveals different views of a musical persona that can best be described as globally expansive.

In 2015, the composer, educator and bandleader  – as well as Alto Saxophonist of the Year, as voted on by Downbeat Magazine’s International Critic’s Poll six out of the last seven years – channeled, dissected and reassimilated the music of Charlie Parker into an audacious album called “Bird Calls.” Last fall, Mahanthappa followed with “Agrima,” a stylistic turnaround that meshed jazz, Indian classical music and electronics. As he prepares for his Kentucky debut on Saturday, Mahanthappa discussed plans for a future project that involves a straight ahead jazz trio of sax, bass and drums fashioned after Sonny Rollins’s classic 1958 album, “A Night at the Village Vanguard.”

“Look at my discography and you will see every album is different,” Mahanthappa said. “Almost every album has a completely different band, so I’m always trying to shake things up for myself and change the vehicle as much as I can. My musical personality stays the same, I guess, but different scenarios bring different things out of me.”

Mahanthappa’s personal history is as culturally rich and varied as his music. Born in Italy to Indian parents, he grew up in Boulder, Colorado, initially absorbing the pop sounds of Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn on the radio before cutting his teeth in area jazz and even Dixieland bands.

“I knew every track with a saxophone solo that was being played on Top 40 radio, whether it was Men at Work or Supertramp or the sax solos on (Bruce) Springsteen records. I learned them all. That was my first kind of ear training, trying to learn by holding my mono tape recorder up to the radio so I could learn the saxophone solos.

“The players in the Boulder bands were all twice my age but they took me in. I was butchering Charlie Parker solos, but people gave me a chance. Those experiences were really important. It was the welcoming aspect that really mattered. I felt like I belonged someplace. Not that I didn’t belong in my family. It was just a way to really be a musician with other musicians.”

Curiously, Mahanthappa’s exploration of his Indian heritage came much later in his decidedly American upbringing.

“The elements of Indian music came from a place of trying to engage my ancestry in a way that was really meaningful. I don’t speak my parents’ language. I didn’t grow up around any other Indian families. Beyond the limits of my immediate household, I was figuring out how to create an Indian-American culture on my own and with my brothers. For me, in particular, music was the most effective way of describing that, defining that and communicating that. I feel a lot of the music I play is a by-product of me getting to know myself.”

Today, Mahanthappa’s heralded career is balanced with duties as the head of jazz studies at Princeton University. That ties in to his performance on Saturday at the Singletary Center, where he will team with University of Kentucky jazz pros Miles Osland and Raleigh Dailey in their Jazztet.

“It’s nice to go to these places I’ve never been before and play with the locals who have developed a real scene in their part of the country. I think it’s very important to the relevance of this music to engage as many of the communities as possible and not just show up to do the gig and take off. There’s a lot more to it than that.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs with the Osland/Dailey Jazztet at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10 at the Singletary Center for the Arts Recital Hall, 405 Rose St. Tickets: $13 public, free in advance to University of Kentucky students. Call 859-257-4929 or go to etix.com.



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