Jazz artist draws richly on Indian roots

Boston Globe, October 30, 2011

It’s been a subtle kind of homecoming for Rudresh Mahanthappa. Of course, southern India was never really home for the alto saxophonist, strictly speaking: Though his parents came from there, he grew up in Colorado and developed his jazz chops at the Berklee College of Music, then on the Chicago and New York scenes.

Still, Mahanthappa, who at 40 is one of his generation’s prominent and critically praised saxophonists, came up with a child-of-immigrants feel for India and a sense of the richness and complexity of its music traditions, even if his own route – high school band, rock and funk dabblings, music school – was more classically American.

So it was likely, but by no means inevitable, that Mahanthappa would eventually make work that engaged Indian music overtly. He did it with “Kinsmen” (2008) a dazzling collaboration with Chennai-based saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath and a group of players from the jazz and Carnatic (South Indian classical) scenes.

And he has done it again – and by his own reckoning, more deeply – with “Samdhi,” a new album with a distinctive lineup of sax, electric guitar and bass, drum set and South Indian percussions. He visits Regattabar on Thursday to present this music.

On one level, “Samdhi” feels barely Indian at all. The electric instrumentation and particularly the virtuoso guitar of David Gilmore and bassist Rich Brown’s funk stylings evoke a jazz-rock (dare we say “fusion”?) realm that listeners of Mahanthappa’s previous work, which is acoustic and sometimes knotty, might not have anticipated.

Not only that: Mahanthappa also integrates electronic effects, at times looping and fragmenting the sounds from his horn, or using Ableton Live software to duet with the laptop or have the computer “improvise.”

So there is a lot going on here. Still, Mahanthappa explains by phone from a tour stop in Austria, “Samdhi” could not have happened without an immersion he made into Carnatic music in 2007-08, thanks to a Guggenheim fellowship.

The compositions draw on what he learned that year, bingeing at a major music festival in Chennai, then spending a month of intensive all-day study with Gopalnath and another with a Bangalore mridangam (percussion) master.

“The plan was to go to the festival, then go to India again and work on the melodic ornamentation,” he says. “How it fits into raga theory, and in specific ways to particular ragas.”

It began with a challenge: developing the ornamentation that is essential in Indian music yet hard to achieve with a fixed-hole instrument. Gopalnath’s saxophone mastery made him a natural teacher, though Mahanthappa says figuring out the embouchure and fingering techniques was complicated at first.

“These things are in the mindset, like a way of shifting gears,” he says. “But the first few days sitting with Kadri, I was thinking I’ll never be able to play this stuff.”

But he did – and the two worked on a raga each day, Mahanthappa recording the older man, then trying to play the material back, asking questions, going over details. He then did the same with the percussionist. “We worked on complex rhythm structures. We might be dissecting different ways of breaking up 21 beats. Or different ground rules, what they do and don’t do.”

“It was good to get an inside sense,” Mahanthappa says. “Most of the way I had dealt with Indian music was by ear or by reading whatever I could.” The immersion, he says, gave him some proficiency and compositional starting points.

As for the electric orientation, Mahanthappa says it spoke to an urge to make a more accessible recording in the spirit of fusion players like the Brecker Brothers and David Sanborn, whom he enjoyed when he was first learning to play, but also created an interesting context for the Carnatic material.

“It’s always been a sound in my head ever since I was a kid,” he says. “And I was really fascinated with looking for other ways to recontextualize this musical information from Carnatic, take it in a very literal form and throw it into a very different setting.”

“Samdhi” was actually recorded in 2008, though only mixed and released this year. The band – minus mridangam player Anantha Krishnan, who is based in Chennai and has only joined occasionally – has played the music on multiple occasions since then, and both Mahanthappa and guitarist Gilmore say the sound has grown a great deal.

“It has come a long way,” says Gilmore, who had some earlier Carnatic-influenced experiences playing with percussionist Trilok Gurtu. “The development of the music night after night, and the many different directions we have been able to take it, has made it extremely fun.”

“Samdhi” finds its place beside not only the earlier “Kinsmen,” but also recent projects by pianist Vijay Iyer (“Tirtha”), guitarist Rez Abbasi (“Suno Suno”), or drummer Sameer Gupta (“Namaskar”). All involve South Asian-American bandleaders mapping out new intersections of jazz and Indian music.

“I can’t speak for those other guys,” Mahanthappa says. “But I see my engagement as a developing dialogue with myself, as I continue to grow into being Indian-American.”