May 5-11, 2005
East Meets Midwest
Altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa puts a classical Indian spin on traditional jazz.
Born and raised in Boulder, Col., Rudresh Mahanthappa didn't grow up with particularly strong ties to his South Indian heritage. "My parents weren't really part of an Indian community. There was an Indian Association of Metro Denver or something, and they'd get together once a month and have dinner, always on Sunday afternoons. And it was that typical thing of all the men watching the Denver Broncos game and all the women were in the kitchen talking and all the kids were beating the crap out of each other in someone's room. I guess the most blatant way I can put it is until I went to college, I kind of thought that I was white."That sense of integrated cultures pervades the altoist's approach to jazz. Where many such experiments merely graft traditional jazz over top of Indian rhythms, Mahanthappa employs Indian musical concepts organically. The result is a fresh direction for jazz rather than a two-headed musical monster, largely because the ideas are not imposed externally from a desire to experiment with form rather than from a natural predilection. Mahanthappa explains, "I'm not integrating this into jazz because I feel like I have to, I feel like it's burning inside me and it's part of a larger picture of who I am."
Mahanthappa's new Dakshina Ensemble, co-commissioned by the Painted Bride as part of its JazzJaunts series, is his most overt attempt to fuse his Eastern and Western influences. The septet, composed of musicians from both traditions, is co-led by altoist Kadri Gopalnath, who Mahanthappa refers to as a "living legend of South Indian music." Gopalnath is credited with introducing the saxophone into Indian classical music, though any jazz influence stops at the instrument. He approaches the alto as if it were a nagaswaram, the traditional Indian double-reed instrument, which inspired Mahanthappa to try and find a meeting point between the cultures centered on their shared horn.
"I haven't done many projects working with actual Indian instrumentalists, but even the few that I have I've really tried to more work with concepts than just sort of superficially working with the sounds. Along those same lines, I'm trying to highlight what we both do and put our ideas together. I think a lot of my music is influenced by Indian music, as far as dealing with rhythm and even dealing with melody. And sonically, sometimes my approach to how I actually play the horn, I try to evoke some of those sounds. But the piece is really about finding this middle ground where we're both comfortable playing in this setting that is half-Western and half-South Indian, but maybe to a point that it's actually neither."
The clash of traditions did present some interesting obstacles, as Mahanthappa recalls. "Indian musicians have what they call their "sruti,' which is the key that they play everything in. [Gopalnath] plays everything in B flat. So that was another issue can we do something outside of B flat? And he found kind of a nice way of saying, no, we can't. A lot of interesting issues came up over that week as to how am I going to pull this off, because we can't play 70 minutes in B flat. That's gonna kill a Western audience."
Mahanthappa finally found a compromise by settling on ragas that, while rooted in B flat, allowed the Western musicians to start on a different note and "trick the ear" into hearing a different key. But despite the restrictions, Gopalnath warmed to the unfamiliar methods over the course of Mahanthappa's week in India. "There isn't this very strong sense of being a composer in Indian music. The songs that you play are these ancient songs that come from the Vedas. And I'd say, let's play something using this raga and he would say, I know lots of compositions that use that raga. And I'd be like, OK, we're actually gonna make a new one now. And that's a strange notion. So I'm like, I wrote this, can you think of something contrapuntally to play with it? He'd sit there and think for a minute and then he'd be like, how about this, and it would be this beautiful thing, these lines weaving in and out of each other. It was really amazing."
Given the frustration that Mahanthappa has felt in the past over the emphasis on his ancestry over his music he and frequent collaborator Vijay Iyer have actually been announced as being from India in the past he approached this project with a bit of understandable trepidation. But the chance to work with Gopalnath overcame his reluctance, and in the end, "maybe in some ways it could work the other way. Oh, so that's Indian music and that's not. And that guy's Indian and that guy's Indian-American. Maybe it seems like a way of splitting the two up finally."
Rudresh Mahanthappa's Dakshina Ensemble, Sat., May 7, 7 and 9 p.m., $25, Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., 215-925-9914, www.paintedbride.org.