In advance of Rudresh Mahanthappa's upcoming Zankel Hall concert, music journalist Jeff Tamarkin introduces the Indian-American alto saxophonist and his album Samdhi, which forms the backbone of his April 21 gig.
For Rudresh Mahanthappa, the idea of melding Indian melodic elements with jazz did not come entirely naturally, despite his Indian-American background. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, says the award-winning alto saxophonist, Indian devotional music was often played in his home, but it was rock and electric-jazz fusion that made the young Rudresh want to play music. “I relate to lots of elements in Indian culture,” he says, “but I don’t speak my parents’ language, which seems to be this great tool of judgment—how Indian are you if you don’t speak your parents’ language? But I feel like I do, because I’ve done it through music by going on a journey of self-discovery.”
Indeed, on albums such as Apti, with his Indo-Pak Coalition; Kinsmen, with Indian alto Kadri Gopalnath; Apex, with American alto Bunky Green; and last year’s Samdhi, Mahanthappa has explored in depth the crossroads between the music of his parents’ homeland and the jazz he’s loved since childhood.
The music on Samdhi—which is the focus of his acoustic-electric performance in Zankel Hall—was the direct result of his being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition in 2007. It took three years from the time Mahanthappa premiered the work until it was ready to make its way out into the world on disc. The concept behind Samdhi, says Mahanthappa, “was to get into some very specific nitty-gritty of South Indian melodic ornamentation and detailed approaches to rhythm. There are a lot of aspects of Indian music where I felt I knew how something worked, but I didn’t know why it worked a particular way. Part of my goal was to get into some of the heavy theoretical concepts and try to understand: Why do you guys do this and why don’t you do this?”
Although Mahanthappa has been highly lauded for his exploration of Indian motifs within jazz—both DownBeat and JazzTimes magazines have named him Alto Saxophonist of the Year—he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as “that Indian alto guy. To some degree, you can’t get away from who you are, but it’s very important to be an individual and to have a unique voice,” he says. “It’s a fine balance.”
Jeff Tamarkin is the associate editor of JazzTimes magazine.
"Playing with Stones" from Rudresh Mahanthappa's album Samdhi on Act Music & Vision.
Related: April 21, Rudresh Mahanthappa