Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has made a name for himself by marrying elements of traditional Indian classical music with the adventurous harmonic properties of jazz.
A top-flight instrumentalist with a forward-looking compositional acumen, Mahanthappa graduated from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Mass. in 1992, and shortly thereafter, found himself drawn to the ever-bustling milieu of New York City jazz, where he formed a fruitful working relationship with pianist Vijay Iyer.
In the time since, Mahanthappa has released 12 albums as a band leader, the latest of which, “Bird Calls,” represents a high water mark. For this album, Mahanthappa and his quintet of elite jazz musicians – including 20-year-old trumpet wunderkind Adam O’Farrill – examine the resounding influence of be-bop progenitor Charlie Parker (known as Yardbird, or Bird) in a thoroughly and thrillingly 21st century context. Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls performs at 8 p.m. March 19 in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Drama Theatre,.
Buffalo.com: The conception behind “Bird Calls” is brilliant, in that, rather than playing a bunch of Charlie Parker charts, you’re actually channeling his influence through your own playing. This places Bird firmly in the present tense, and is much more in keeping with the Parker ethic of spontaneous creation. Did you plan ‘Bird Calls’ to stand in opposition to a conventional “tribute” album?
Mahanthappa: That was definitely the idea. The whole thing started about 20 years ago, when I was working with a student on the Bird tune “Donna Lee.” I started breaking apart the phrases to work on them with her, and when I did that – when I started a phrase in the middle, or reversed it, or simply took a segment of a melody and worked with that – it sounded like contemporary classical music!
Breaking apart the lines like that put this idea in my mind, but obviously not in the front of my mind, since it took 20 years to actualize it! (laughs) But basically, I wrote something based upon a dissection of ‘Donna Lee’ and liked what happened, so I kept going.
Q: The connection between Indian classical music and jazz has long been hinted at, but you have been very successful at translating that influence through a jazz vocabulary. For the uninitiated, could you break down the idea of working melodic lines that have a lot of microtones (as opposed to Western music’s whole tones or semitones) into jazz harmony? What are the particular challenges?
A: It’s less about the microtones than it is about the ornamentation, the direction, and the gravity of the lines – how you approach them, where you approach them from, and how you phrase them.
Indian classical music has no harmony really – it’s melody and rhythm. But the complexity of the music kind of prevents the listener from realizing that there is no harmony happening. The main challenge for me was to avoid exoticism for exoticism’s sake. To build something that is sort of both, and neither. (laughs) To not superimpose one form over the other, but to integrate them into something more organic. There was also the cultural challenge.
As an Indian American, at this time in the later ‘90s, there was no real role model, so in a sense, I needed to find out who I was, through the music. You know, I grew up on Bird and Coltrane, but I also grew up on Yes, and Michael Jackson! (laughs) Indian music happened to me later, and became a vehicle for me trying to find out what it meant to be an Indian American. But it’s all in there, everything I’ve loved over the years.
Q: I assume the nature of the entire “Bird Calls” project demands that the music changes every time it is played. What are the challenges involved with touring this music and attempting to summon that magic from night to night?
A: Finding musicians willing to stretch their minds is a big part of it, and I’ve been lucky in that area. The other big thing has to do with me, and my ability to know that I’ve got the right players with me, and to allow them the latitude to steer the whole thing themselves at times. Learning to let it happen has been the cornerstone of how successful it becomes, and I’ve become much better at that over time.
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Calls
When: 8 p.m. March 19
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts Drama Theatre
Tickets: $20.50 to $34.50