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Mahanthappa’s quintet impresses with Bird-inspired program

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has performed in Western New York before – first with pianist Vijay Iyer and secondly with his own quartet (both in the Art of Jazz series at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery) – but his new quintet showcased their skills in the Drama Theatre at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, building on solos created by bebop icon Charlie Parker to generate new ideas.

Although the venue was barely half full Saturday night, the group filled the hall with adventurous excursions drawn from “Bird Calls,” Mahanthappa’s highly acclaimed album from 2015. No Parker tunes were heard except snippets drawn from his performances, which were then reshaped, into new expressions. As a result, the licks heard in “Relaxin’ At Camarillo,” “Parker’s Mood,” “Now’s the Time” and “Confirmation” were recast in, respectively, “Chillin’,” “Talin Is Thinking,” “Maybe Later” and “Sure Why Not?”.

The front line of Mahanthappa and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill took the lion’s share of solos while the rhythm section – pianist Bobby Avey, bassist Thomson Kneeland, and drummer Jordan Perlson – acted as the support staff most of the time.

Avey and Kneeland were responsible for that subcontinent drone under the top line. Avey relied on his left hand to propel the music forward most of the time and his chops didn’t really get a workout until he was spotlighted in “Talin Is Thinking.” Kneeland, in tandem with Person, anchored the tunes but the drummer’s solo outing was one of the set highlights.

Still, it was Mahanthappa and O’Farrill, the folks upfront in the mix, which impressed the most. That’s the way one would expect it to be but it was still amazing to hear the way they listened to each other, taking off on individual flights of fancy that tied into one another at all the crucial points.

The alto sax knifed through the material, slicing and dicing the Parker solos into a whole other beastie while O’Farrill’s horn commented on and chorused along with the leader’s thoughts. It was an impressive showing, doubly impressive when one considers the trumpeter’s bloodlines.

O’Farrill’s grandfather, Chico O’Farrill, was also a trumpeter but is best known for his arranging chops and as a major force (admittedly with other masters) in bringing Cuban rhythms to jazz. Chico’s son Arturo has led an award-winning big band that Adam grew up playing in.

All told this particular performance was a great introduction to Mahanthappa and O’Farrill, one that bodes well for the future because it sure sounds good in the present.

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