by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2011 Anil Prasad.
Rudresh Mahanthappa is a man on a mission. He’s driven to integrate the saxophone into a vast panorama of settings far beyond its typical range. His output is often reflective of his Indian-American heritage, with an engaging hybrid approach that merges avant-jazz and South Asian elements. His current quartet, also consisting of microtonal guitarist David Fiuczynski, bassist François Moutin and drummer Dan Weiss, is emblematic of that direction.
In addition to his own band, Mahanthappa leads or co-leads several other groups that push the boundaries of jazz. For almost two decades, he’s worked with pianist Vijay Iyer and they currently tour as a duo known as Raw Materials. Indo-Pak Coalition, featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss, is another key project. Mahanthappa also works with Carnatic saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath in Kinsmen. The act explores the intersections between Indian and Western improvisatory approaches, with Mahanthappa taking on a jazz-oriented role, while Gopalnath represents the South Indian side of the equation. Mahanthappa is also one third of MSG, a mercurial trio with drummer Chander Sardjoe and bassist Ronan Guilfoyle that recently released its debut album Tasty!
Mahanthappa’s latest recording, Apex, is a cross-generational collaboration with the highly influential, yet unsung saxophonist Bunky Green. Best known for a string of albums on Vanguard in the ‘70s, including the acclaimed Places We’ve Never Been, Green is enjoying a renaissance of interest as a result of Apex. The fiery, impressive effort features original compositions from both Mahanthappa and Green, as well as performances from pianist Jason Moran, François Moutin, and drummers Damion Reid and Jack DeJohnette. While Green primarily focuses on his role as a jazz educator, serving as the Director of Jazz Studies at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville, the group is an ongoing one, with future recordings and performances planned.
Innerviews sat down with Mahanthappa to discuss the making of Apex, as well other pivotal moments in his career, over potent glasses of sweet potato shochu at the O Izakaya Lounge in San Francisco’s Japantown. In conversation, Mahanthappa offers a similar combination of intrigue, inspiration and humor as that which informs his art.
Describe the seeds of the Apex collaboration.
My relationship with Bunky goes pretty far back. I first heard Bunky when I was at Berklee. I had just moved there from North Texas. The reason I left North Texas is I was hearing something that wasn’t necessarily traditional in my head and I started developing some kind of “modern” vocabulary as an improviser and composer to some degree. I thought Berklee would be a better place to work that out. I hadn’t yet heard Greg Osby, Steve Coleman or any of those folks. I was checking out a lot of Coltrane and 20th Century classical music and trying to reverse engineer how they created vocabulary and fodder for melodic ideas. During my first semester at Berklee, Greg Osby did a residency and played a concert at the end of his week. I can’t remember liking or disliking it, but I thought there was something there that was different and very interesting. This was all happening in 1990. It was the year that Dave Holland released the Expansions album. A friend of mine put some headphones on my head in the practice room and said “Check this out.” And I was like “Whoa, Steve Coleman.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I encountered his writing and playing. I heard a kind of kinship with that music and what I was striving for. I heard Charlie Parker, Persichetti and Bartok all at the same time in what he was doing. That was kind of what I was chasing too. So, I got pretty deep into that.
Once, I was warming up for a lesson with Joe Viola, a legendary saxophone teacher who passed away a few years ago. He was listening to what I was doing and said “Have you ever heard Bunky Green?” I said “Never, but I’ve seen the name before.” Joe then headed to this private closet of special albums and weird mouthpieces he’d loan out to students he liked. He loaned me this album by Bunky called Places We’ve Never Been and it blew my mind. I did a little bit of research and found out he was teaching at the University of North Florida at Jacksonville. This was in the days before the Internet, so I was calling national directory assistance trying to track down his number. Finally, I got his office number and called him. He answered and I told him who I was. [laughs] I said I really loved his album and that I wanted to send him some of the tunes I was writing on a cassette tape, which was still the format back then. My goal was to get some feedback and it was something I was doing anyway. I was always giving cassettes to people I admired to get some sort of input, and hopefully lay some groundwork for playing with these people someday. Bunky actually called me back and said he liked what he heard and that he felt my direction was unique and to keep going and pushing. That was the beginning.
I didn’t have any contact with Bunky for several years after that. I ended up in Chicago a few years later when I finished at Berklee. I chose not to move to New York City right away, and instead went to Chicago and do my Masters at De Paul University. I was in the big band there. The band went to perform at the Jazz Educators Conference, which was in Anaheim, California that year. I saw Bunky there and I reminded him of our phone conversation and the tape. He vaguely remembered it. I kept telling him I had a bunch of big solo features with the big band during our performance. I did it every time I ran into him over the course of the week. [laughs] I remember coming off the stage after our Sunday afternoon performance and there he was, standing by the side of the stage. He gave me a big hug and said “There are really only four of us. There’s me and you, and Greg Osby and Steve Coleman. We all have to take the saxophone into the future.” That was all I needed to hear. [laughs]
After that point, we always talked about trying to do something together. I think he had mixed feelings about coming back and playing in Chicago, where he was based. He’s from Milwaukee, but he definitely spent a good chunk of his career in Chicago before he went to Florida. He had a lot of history with the clubs. I think he felt if he was going to come back and do something in Chicago, he wanted it to be something big, not just a couple of nights in a medium-sized club. So, that never really panned out. We kept in touch over the years, and then my friend Mike Orloff, a major concert presenter in Chicago, asked me to be part of a series called Chicago World Class Jazz that he curates. It takes place in Millennium Park and there has to be a Chicago orientation to the concert presented. It wasn’t enough that I lived in Chicago. He wanted me to involve Chicago musicians. He initially asked me to bring the Kinsmen project to the series and add a bunch of Chicago musicians to it. That seemed potentially disastrous to me because it’s already such a difficult band to mobilize that I don’t need to dilute or complicate it. I said “I don’t want to do that, but how about if Bunky and I do this thing we’ve been talking about doing for years?” He said yes and we performed with a septet, including four horns and a rhythm section, featuring Chicago musicians. It went down beautifully. There were 10,000 people there and it was amazing. It gave Bunky a lot of faith in doing something together.
He’s of a different generation. He’s been part of a lot of things and he’s been screwed over. He’s had to deal with things that weren’t what they were supposed to be and he’s a little cautious, with good reason. When I’m 75, I’ll be really cautious too. But he was really pleased and knew we had to move forward, write more music and document the project. We started talking about rhythm sections. I know Jason Moran quite well, and Jason played on one of Bunky’s albums too. Jack DeJohnette and Bunky knew each other from their Chicago days, but never really played together. I was playing in Jack’s band, and still am, so there were all kinds of shared histories, combined with coincidences and incredible timing. Everyone happened to be around the one week we made the album and made themselves available to do some gigs.
Tell me about the collaborative process that enabled the music on Apex to happen.
It was interesting because Bunky made it very clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to play any odd meters, or play in 5, 11 or 13. What he said was “I could practice and get it together, but it’ll never feel comfortable. And if I don’t feel comfortable, it’s not about making music anymore.” For him, it was more important to find vehicles to highlight what we do, and our interaction as improvisers. So, we agreed we would each write four or five tunes for the project. I thought to myself “How can I write a blues, a rhythm changes tune and a 'modal' tune at this point, when I haven’t written anything like that since my early college or late high school days? How can I do that and still have my voice present in that?”
I also needed to create something that leads to a lot of healthy, productive interaction within the ensemble as well. So, that’s exactly what I did. I wrote a blues, a rhythm changes tune, a modal tune, and a couple of other things. [laughs] Bunky’s tunes very much have form and chords and all that, but there’s a little bit of looseness in how we can play the melodies and how they dovetail off each other. They are very dialog-oriented, like we’re talking to each other within them. It was also really about trying to bring the band as a unit to life. Arrangement-wise, we tried a lot of different things. A lot was right on the spot, in that as soon as we played it, we said “Oh, that sounds great. I guess that’s the take for the record.” [laughs] That was really cool and fun. We had two days to do the album, so we were able to play around with lots of different scenarios within the tunes we had. We didn’t actually write any music together, but we each wrote with the project in mind.
Describe the dynamic of the rest of the group and how it informed the proceedings.
I never really worried about that aspect of it. I knew all those guys would show up with their “A game.” It was fun to hear Jason Moran, François Moutin and Jack DeJohnette, and Jason, François and Damion Reid. I knew the hook-up with either rhythm section, regardless of drummer, was going to be seriously good. Jason really brought something special to the project too. He has an incredible way of knowing when to play and when not to play, and when to vary density. I remember thinking at one point that I wish Jason was playing more, but then when I heard it back on tape, I thought “Oh wow, this is perfect. He’s seeing outside of it while he’s in it.” Jack and Bunky were on it right away and that was really cool. On one of the bonus tracks, they play a duet on “Seashells,” one of Bunky’s older tunes from his Healing the Pain album. It has this crazy, intervallic melody. I really wanted Bunky to record that again with Jack. I thought it would be really cool. Not that Bunky playing it with Freddy Waits is chopped liver. But it was really fun to see them play together and witness that shared history pouring out of them. It was exciting for me, and for them too. They were honored to be playing with each other.
What’s the future of the group?
There will be more concerts in Europe and North America. We’re really pushing it on all fronts. I think the group definitely has a future. I was very clear with Bunky when we were talking about doing Apex. I said “I want to record a group that’s going to play gigs.” With Kinsmen, I got very lucky given that we made an album and didn’t play many gigs, yet it still got a lot of attention and did really well. I think that’s a rare occurrence. Bunky is at a point where he’s winding down his teaching career. He’s not definitely going to retire, but he’s teaching less than he ever has. He really wants to get out there and play again, so it’s good timing.
You mentioned you’re also part of DeJohnette’s new band. How did that opportunity come about?
That’s kind of funny. I actually played a gig with Jack at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend in 1997. Then I moved to New York three weeks later. It was Von Freeman’s 75th birthday and they said he could choose to play with whoever he wants. I was flattered he asked me to play a couple of tunes with him. He brought Jack in for that gig and that was the first time we met. We kind of hit it off when we hung out. I told him I was moving to New York City and he said “Oh man, when you get there, give me a call.” That’s what everybody says, but everybody is actually really busy. I did call him a few times and he said “It would be good to play, but I’m busy right now. Let’s talk again in April. It’ll be a little looser then.” So, I’d call in April and he’d say “It’s kind of busy, can you call me in July?” I know he’s extremely busy and he doesn’t really know me from anybody else, you know? I figured it I ever did play with Jack, it wouldn’t just happen because I kept calling him.
What did happen was quite backwards. Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski was playing with Jack in a Jack Johnson project that was commissioned by one of the French jazz festivals. I think they do a live soundtrack to the film. It includes Jack, Jerome Harris, Fuze, a British trumpet player named Byron Wallen, and a sax player named Jason Yard—two cats from the London scene. So, Fuze was doing that project, and he and I were talking about doing something together. We discussed who we would want to play with, and I said “I’d like to play with Dan Weiss and François Moutin—guys I know can deal with what I do and play incredibly well.” Fuze said “What about Jack?” And I said “Of course I’d love to play with Jack.” Fuze replied “Let me ask him. Send me some MP3s I can forward to Jack.” I did, Jack heard the stuff and said “This stuff is killing, can you give me Rudresh’s phone number?” [laughs] I thought “Okay, cool.” Jack’s manager called me a month later and asked if I wanted to be part of Jack’s new group. He said “Let’s do a rehearsal, record it, send out some demos and try to get some gigs.” That’s how it happened. We hit it off and have a really great relationship, musically and socially. So, that was really cool. We’ve done a handful of things so far. Jack’s got his hands in a lot of different projects, so I think it will take awhile to mobilize, but I know he’s really excited about this group. He’s told us several times he feels this is the best band he’s had.
Fiuczynski recently joined your quartet. How does his microtonal approach complement what you do?
It’s interesting because I have a handle on a good bit of the microtonal stuff, but not to the degree that Fuze does. He works with a 72-note octave in which he’s dividing the half-steps into six parts. That’s virtually impossible to do on a saxophone, though I’m sure someone is doing it out there. I can do a good amount of quarter tone stuff, either finger-wise or through manipulating embouchure. Within Jack’s band, things are really interesting because we can do some real ornamented stuff that’s South Indian gamaka-like which is really nice. But the idea of us doing something in which we write music that has that within the composition is something Fuze and I are pursuing, together with François Moutin and Dan Weiss. Fuze and I have a really interesting interaction happening. If he’s doing the microtonal thing and I’m playing the melody straight, a really cool rub happens that works. It works because we’re not playing the same instrument, so it becomes a timbral thing. It’s almost like the pitch difference turns it into that. So, that’s really cool.
What were the key lessons that emerged through your work with Kadri Gopalnath?
It was obviously great to play with him, but if there were any life lessons, it was just him talking about happiness and family. At one point, we were traveling and playing gigs and he would say “You know, you have to take care of your wife.” And it’s something so obvious, but there was something about the way he said it that made me go “Man, no shit. I do need to do that.” [laughs] And he said “You need to buy property, because property can be passed down to your kids.” He would also talk about deriving joy from playing music. It’s easy for us as jazz musicians to maybe think what we’re doing is more important than communicating and reaching an audience—you know, that idea of music for music’s sake and the “I don’t care what people think” mentality. It can be easy to believe “What I’m doing is amazing or important.” Kadri has done so much that’s new for Carnatic music, yet he always talks about reaching the audience. He and I were talking about another saxophonist once and he said “I heard him and wondered if an audience likes this?” And I remember thinking “Wow, maybe not, actually.” [laughs] The saxophonist I’m talking about has so much emphasis on being new and interesting, but is he communicating something to a broader base? Every conversation Kadri and I had about music, our interaction, and where jazz and Carnatic music intersect, had an undertone of “We have to reach an audience, whoever it is.” I feel I have to be reminded of that for sure. There’s so much joy when he’s playing—not that I don’t experience the same thing. I do when I play, but he’s just a special person. It’s funny, Bunky and Kadri are two halves of the same person to me. [laughs] I’m both of those guys put together, or at least that’s what I want to be when I grow up.
You’ve said you pushed Gopalnath into Western harmonic territory, which was a challenge for him. How did you grow as a musician working with him?
More than anything, whatever I was going to do within the confines of the project could not be jive in any way. I couldn’t jive some sort of Indian melodic raga-oriented thing with him sitting next to me doing it for real. What was important about the situation is that I felt like I could be a jazz musician within this kind of Indian setting, as opposed to finding a way to negotiate both sides, because half of it was taken care of. So, that was new territory. Of course, rhythmically, when we’re trading all of that stuff he’s throwing at me so quickly, I have to answer back. That was a ballbuster. It was like “Okay, I think I have good ears, but this guy has amazing ears and can play anything back.” We did some gigs a few months ago for the first time in awhile and it was great. I saw how much I had grown in three years in terms of having a greater understanding of what I’m trying to do and where I’m headed. I felt like I was coming to the music with a more substantial level of maturity. I was thinking “Wow, I can hang in a way I wasn’t hanging in 2007.” That was very cool.
Both you and Gopalnath have been considered outsiders during your careers. Did you have conversations about that?
We didn’t have conversations about sharing that experience, but we did talk about his past, which was great, because it was like a jazz musician’s past. I always think a lot of Indian music is about lineage, involving the son or the grandson of the disciple of so and so, with all of this knowledge passed down. People are almost anointed. And then you have the whole Brahmenical culture on top of that too. That adds another layer of high-falutin’ superiority. With Kadri, you have a guy who’s not a Brahman. He’s the son of a semi-professional musician who plays in the local temple. Kadri is a self-made man. He talked about how he was on this schedule in which he was working at an electronics store, selling transistor radios, and working a 10-hour shift there. Then he’d come home, eat, and practice until 3:00 am in the morning. He’d go to sleep for three hours and go back to work. He did that for a few years while he was trying to get his thing together. He also discussed the All India Radio thing, in which you get “Class A” or “Class B” for your playing. You’re judged on your abilities in order to get work on radio. He walked into All India Radio with his saxophone and they laughed at him. Then he started playing and they said “Ohhhhh.” They conducted a kind of examination and said “Now do this. Now can you play this?” And he’s playing the hell out of all this traditional Carnatic musical literature. What a novel experience it must have been to get over with those folks.
I didn’t really tell Kadri about the ways I felt like an outsider, because really, I wasn’t sure if he would even get it if I did. I think being trained as a Western musician and making a living in that universe is very alien to him. He would even get hung up on really basic things like clothes. He would say “You don’t wear traditional Indian clothes?” I said “No, I never have.” He’d respond “You don’t wear a black-and-white tuxedo like the orchestra musicians either?” I said “No, I usually wear nice pants and a good shirt. Very occasionally I’ll wear a suit for something special.” And he’d say “So, what you wear is traditional jazz dress?” That would crack me up. I didn’t know how to explain it to him. [laughs]
Tell me about the beginnings of Indo-Pak Coalition and how the idea evolved into the current line-up.
What’s funny about that is I had an entertainment lawyer at the time, which meant someone who was trying to find me a record deal. I had done my first album, Yatra, which was released on a student-run label through a college in Chicago. It was shopped to a few majors by a guy who taught a class, who was also the former CEO of Polygram. There was some really good interest, but it didn’t go anywhere. He said “I can’t really help you, but talk to this lawyer. She might be able to help you find something out there.” She really jumped all over the Indian thing and said “I think it will be easier if I can sell you as a blah, blah, blah.” She was the one that said “Maybe you could have Ravi Shankar as a guest.” And I thought “Oh God, I really don’t want to do this.” During that period, Fareed Haque and I had talked about doing something and I wrote some music. We had a great tabla player named Maninder Singh and did a couple of gigs in Chicago around 1996. We even recorded a little demo. It was fun but it was also jive, superficial and all the things I didn’t want to be. I didn’t feel that engaged with the tabla like I am now that I have a real understanding of the instrument. When I moved to New York, a venue asked me to put together a band and it happened that Fareed was going to be in town, so I called the tabla player Sameer Chatterjee, and we rehearsed like crazy. We did a gig and a couple of record labels showed up and were interested, but the project fell apart. There was a voice in the back of my head that said “this doesn’t feel right.” I wasn’t going to be able to make an album with that band and really be able to look at myself in the mirror every day. So, I disbanded the whole thing. I was disillusioned and pursued my quartet stuff.
Then I met Rez Abbasi and Dan Weiss and it was like “Wow.” I started feeling that this idea could work. Of course, I was growing as a musician and really felt like it was something that could be captivating for the average listener, yet be something filled with a lot of integrity, as well as a situation we could all learn from. I think of where we were when we made our debut album Apti and where we are now, and there’s no comparison. We’re at an extremely high level compared to the album. I’m really looking forward to that band recording again. It’s a really high priority for me.
You just rereleased Yatra digitally. How do you look back at it?
The idea of rereleasing it was really fun. I’m happy for it to be back out in the world again. I think for a guy who was 24, it’s a pretty good record. It would be cool to remaster it. It’s a live to two-track recording, so there’s not much that can be done to it. It has a lot of sentimental value. A lot of that stuff was written after I went to India in 1994, which was the first time I had been there in 11 years, and as an adult. So, I know exactly where a lot of the inspiration for that music came from. It was my first experience leading a band and feeling that I had real musical relationships with people in Chicago. I didn’t feel like a student, I felt like a real musician. So, the album reflects that stuff. I remember working on the cover with the designer. Ten albums later, it’s just kind of funny what you think is important early on. You’re making your first album and there are a lot of misguided notions that go into it and that’s because you’re not sure you’ll ever make another one again. [laughs] There are a couple of tunes on the album that are really good that I’d like to bring back and play again.
Tell me how the MSG group came together.
Ronan Guilfoyle was someone I'd been hearing about for a while. People compared his work to Steve Coleman and I also later learned he is sort of a forefather of creative improvised music in Ireland. We finally met at the Calgary Jazz Festival a few years ago and hit it off. He was more familiar with my work than I was with his, but no matter. I heard about Chander Sardjoe from Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman, who both said he was a rhythmic monster. He’s a guy who can seemingly play any polyrhythm and make music out of it. He’s also someone who can play any of Steve Coleman's music off the top of his head. More than anything, I knew that both of them had seriously delved into Carnatic music with a particular focus on its rhythmic aspects. Chander had gone to India and thoroughly dissected many concepts of Carnatic rhythm and Ronan has actually written a wonderful book about rhythm titled Creative Rhythmic Concepts For Jazz Improvisation that everyone should know about.
We all talked on-and-off about doing something for a while but needed the right opportunity. Ronan still lives in Dublin and Chander was living in Amsterdam, though he recently moved to Paris. So, it wasn't like we could rehearse on a whim. My quartet was booked for the Brecon Jazz Festival in Wales and Dublin's Improvised Music Company (IMC), an amazing presenting organization, contacted me about bringing my quartet to the Kilkenny Arts Festival. That was not financially feasible for them, so I suggested premiering this trio. They loved the idea. We rehearsed for a day before the gig and we had the instant hook-up we all expected and the gig was a great success.
Describe the chemistry you all share.
We all have similar influences within both jazz and non-Western music, but have garnered similar but different information and resultant musical attitudes from those sources. We see eye-to-eye, but simultaneously learn a lot from each other. We also have a penchant for groove. I had written several pieces for my quartet that I never recorded and they ended up being perfect for this trio. The rhythmic propulsion is second to none, as far as I'm concerned. The tunes are rather skeletal in nature, but fill up very nicely as we are all playing rhythm, harmony and melody at once. Our roles are flexible and we seem to break down some of the preconceived notions of what a saxophone trio can do or is supposed to do.
That's one silly band name and album title.
It's just the first letters of our last names. They didn't want to help me find a name so I went with what was easy and funny. MSG makes everything taste good. That's our motto. [laughs] IMC ran with it and set up a photo shoot in a noodle shop. Tasty! seemed like a great name for the album—at least to me!
You lead or co-lead several bands. What’s your philosophy as a bandleader?
I feel like I’m getting to the point at which I can relinquish control. I can let go and trust the people I’m playing with or trust the situation when I don’t know the musicians so well. I think I’ve been a control freak a lot with not only how things get recorded, but how stuff manifests itself live. Take Dan Weiss for example. No matter what happens, he can make great music out of a situation. It can be something that wasn’t planned or even a train wreck, and he will make music out of it. So, it seemed to me there was another means to the same end, musically-speaking, that’s really fun. I feel, especially if it’s a situation that’s already established, that I can provide less direction and we can intuit our way along, which is great. I’m grateful for that. And when I play with Vijay Iyer, there’s a huge kind of ESP thing happening there. Even if we don’t talk about anything, it’ll probably be pretty smoking, so that’s really cool. I’m trying to set up scenarios and structures that will highlight everyone’s strengths and push us all to places we wouldn’t normally go. That’s what I’m more and more concerned with. I’m also more and more grateful and ecstatic to play with who I play with these days. I remember a time when it was more about me. It was “Oh, we have to play this because it will show I can do X, Y and Z really well.” I don’t give a rat’s ass about that anymore. It’s so unimportant.
You toured as a special guest with Nguyên Lê’s trio last November. How did you hook up with him?
I’ve always loved Nguyên’s stuff. He’s like me. He’s always onto the next project and has a million things happening. He’s a few years older than me and has a lot of traction in his career. He’s had great support from his label A.C.T. which has helped him build his career, and that’s fabulous—he really deserves it. I had seen him play in Europe and checked out his videos. I was kind of intimidated by him, really. He’s just playing all this heavy shit. He’ll have a project playing Vietnamese folk songs and play the fuck out of those. Then he’s playing Jimi Hendrix tunes and playing the shit out of them. I was like “Who is this guy?" I was kind of afraid to even say hi to him. [laughs] It was like “What am I going to say to you? You’re running things as far as I’m concerned.” Then one day, I got a two-word message from him through MySpace that said “Great music!” I wrote back through MySpace and said “Thanks, let’s play and see what happens.” He responded saying he was going to do some shows in the States and asked if I would be a special guest with his trio. He thought I’d be a good fit. I thought so too.
I was so honored that he called me. I decided “Whether or not it’s a good fit, I’m going to do it. I’ll make it fit.” [laughs] It’s really exciting. We had a great time. Nguyên is a really funny guy and incredibly nice. The hang is great. The other members of his trio are amazing too. Prabhu Edouard is a really smoking Indian percussionist. He’s of South Indian origin, but he plays tabla. He knows his Carnatic stuff too. We were teaching some rhythm classes together at Cornish College and he’s a really brilliant teacher. He was showing these kids some great stuff and they were blown away. Mieko Miyazaki flies on her koto. It’s a difficult instrument to play. She’s constantly changing her tuning by moving her tuning bridges while she’s playing. She’s able to play some really complicated stuff. She’s virtuosic and is a great listener. It was somewhat intimidating to walk into a trio like this where the people have been playing together awhile, and performing a certain repertoire. It’s challenging to learn the music and also to find your voice within it. But it felt pretty natural. There’s so much potential with this group. We each contributed a tune specific to us four playing together when we did the shows and it really put us in a different place right away. I hope there will be more work together.
Tell me about your forthcoming album Samdhi featuring David Gilmore, Rich Brown and Damion Reid.
That has to be one of the things I’m post proud of. It was the direct result of my Guggenheim fellowship. It’s a combination of all this electronic stuff I’ve worked on, plus all this stuff I studied in South India. I took all the South Indian stuff and voiced it with situations that have nothing to do with that. So, it’s me with laptop, some effects and programming. It also features the guys you mentioned, as well as Anantha Krishnan, a really incredible young mridangam player. The album is somewhat traditionally based, but pretty weird in a way too, as far as the Carnatic perspective goes. He fit into that well. It’s been two years since it was recorded. Right now, I’m considering how to get the music out there.
What do you consider your biggest challenges as a writer these days?
It’s hard to stay fresh sometimes. But more than anything, it’s hard to make time to learn new things with all of the day-to-day life stuff. There’s so much orchestration stuff I want to learn. I want to learn how to write for strings better. I don’t know how I’ll get around to any of it because I’m so consumed with regular life stuff and managing all of the music stuff I already have going on. I’m still doing a good bit of my own business stuff too, even though I have agents. The work never seems to completely disappear. There’s a lot I want to absorb and implement. I’m always fearful of becoming that guy who writes the same tunes over and over again. There are so many guys like that out there. It would be a shame to be one of them since I’ve gone out of my way to avoid it for so long. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve taken on the challenges of dealing with influences from outside of music in projects like Codebook and Mother Tongue. It forces me to not write the same tune again.
You’ve also been known to make field recordings as inspirational tools.
I haven’t done that in a long time, but yeah, there was a time when I would screw around with that stuff. I should do it again, now that it’s so easy to do with an iPhone. I used to record birds and was also really hung up on things that squeaked—like squeaky swing sets and turnstiles. It was like an urban version of Messiaen and the birds. It was like the “Symphony for squeaky turnstiles” or something. [laughs] It’s easy to lose touch with that kind of childlike creativity or inspired frame of mind when you’re thinking about how to pay your mortgage. I would like to spend some time getting back to that state of mind more often. I just want to work harder in general. I feel like I should be, but there’s no way to have the same energy I had when I was 23 and multitasking like crazy and sleeping four hours a night.
We’re both second-generation South Asian. I’m amused by the consistent focus on your ethnicity in your media coverage. What’s your perspective on that?
It’s a really unique talking point. It’s something Vijay Iyer and I have talked about. There was no template for musicians of our generation to make jazz and art as South Asians. The industry almost didn’t know what to do with us. Record labels and industry people would say things like “What you do is very interesting, but have you ever thought about doing an album with a sitar player? Maybe Ravi Shankar could be a guest?” [laughs] So, we had to forge our way ahead until we created enough buzz for ourselves. We had to be active enough that people started paying attention. And obviously, they honed in on this one unique point—the blatant, glaring point that we weren’t black, white or Latino. Rather, we were Indian. There was a time when I was regarded as “that Indian alto player.” Now, it’s more about being respected as a fine modern jazz alto player. But people still want to talk about the Indian thing. I don’t know if they feel like they’re making me comfortable by bringing that up, but I know it’s a comfortable entry point for them. It does beat “Wow, you sound like Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy” though. [laughs] That’s what people used to say about me for years, which is absolutely not true.
Early in your career, you played in reggae and ska bands. Reflect on that period for me.
I was just trying to make a living. My first real forays into being a professional musician took place during a very concentrated period. I played on a cruise ship in 1991. It was a small big band thing on Carnival Cruise Lines. That experience changed my whole perspective on playing music. It was my first professional gig and I was horrified by the music and the people. There was a lot of alcoholism, and a lot of “lifers” out there on the ships talking about what they were going to do when they got off the ship. And I didn’t see that coming anytime soon for them. I actually kind of flipped out and ran back home to Colorado after six weeks instead of staying out the whole summer and going back to Boston like I was supposed to. I thought about quitting playing music. It was incredibly devastating and depressing. I thought “If that’s what it means to be making a living being a musician, I don’t want to have any part of it.” I was so shocked by the whole thing.
At that point, I also saw the value of teaching. I knew I was a very good teacher and saw that as a way to perhaps sustain myself without having to play commercial gigs. I moved to Chicago shortly after that and I was unrelenting there. My attitude was “If I’m ever in a situation where I’m unhappy and my saxophone is in my mouth, then there’s something wrong.” So, I would go out and do weddings, playing “Hot, Hot, Hot” and when there was a saxophone solo, I would just play my shit. [laughs] Of course, I would never get hired again. Almost every wedding band I did a gig with was the first and last time I played with them. I thought that was hilarious, because I wasn’t relying on it to make a living. I was teaching and more interested in playing for people who were actually listening.
I decided I’d rather play a reggae gig with people that were into the music. I was in a reggae band that was quite successful in Chicago called Charles Cameron and the Sunshine Festival. We’re very briefly featured in the movie Love Jones, a beautiful African-American love story that takes place in Chicago. The director saw us play one night and asked us to do it. We did a shoot at The Wild Hare, a really famous reggae club in Chicago. It was fun. I also played a lot of salsa and merengue gigs during those days. They paid horribly and were always far away, which was hard, because I didn’t have a car. They were also really, really loud, but man, I was able to get some real saxophone skills together playing merengue. That music is very hard to play. There’s a lot of tonguing and weird, fast fingering involved. And again, I liked playing for people. It wasn’t like putting on a tuxedo and playing a private party and feeling like wallpaper. In the meantime, I also had my own band. I was trying to get gigs and write music, but even with those reggae bands, if I had a solo, I would just play my shit too. [laughs] The leader thought that it was cool and even hilarious. So it was all good. In that sense, my role model was Michael Brecker. It’s interesting to see what he got away with. No matter what he plays on, he’s playing exactly like him. If he’s playing with Dire Straits, he’s still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. If he’s playing with Paul Simon, he’s still playing a bunch of Coltrane shit. [laughs] It’s almost like people didn’t realize that he was pulling a fast one on them. I always thought if I was going to be in those situations, I was going to have the same attitude. I’m going to play my thing and somehow make it relevant to this reggae or merengue situation.
Charlie Parker once said “Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.” How does that statement apply to you?
I always liked that quote. The first time I read it was probably in junior high. I had no idea what it meant. Then I understood there was this glamorization of Charlie Parker and his drug addiction. I’ve never dabbled in any of the hardcore stuff, but there was once a little part of me that thought “Maybe that’s what you have to do. Maybe that’s what ‘livin’ it’ means.” But to look back now at almost 40 years-old, what “livin’ it” meant for me was trying to figure out who I am and realizing I’m not white and not black and that I’m something else. The question was: What does that “something else” mean? How does that fit into this country and the rest of the world? How do you stake a claim for yourself and your people? I think anytime one of us does something non-traditional, we’re making it easier for someone else to do that. When I see a restaurant review in Time Out New York and see it was written by an Indian or Indian-American, I’m totally thrilled by that. I’m like “Go, dude!” If I look through gallery listings in New York and see an Indian artist, I’m going to go. Even if the stuff looks like crap, I’ll go. [laughs] I know that South Asians come to my shows and they’re obviously into the music, but they’re also thrilled by the occurrence of the event of one of their own performing.
Is there a spiritual component to your music?
It’s not religion-based, but when I’m really into it, I feel connected to something that is almost otherworldly. I can’t describe it very well, but there’s something that happens even when I’m alone if I’m playing something that’s very special. There’s also that amazing thing that happens when the band and audience are all kind of in tune somehow—some sort of resonance takes place that’s actually more important than the music itself. So, to that degree, I’m spiritual. I was raised Hindu, but then we were left to our own devices come high school. There are a lot of great teachings on Hinduism, but ultimately, all religions talk about being a good person. That’s something I make a conscious effort to be. I know I’ve gone through periods of being kind of a dick and I regret those. I know why that was happening. Certain things were forcing that. Surrounding myself with good people is as important as surrounding myself with good musicians now. I feel like I’m finally at a place where I really respect everyone I’m playing with as a person. There was a time when I was okay with playing with someone who was an asshole if he played really well. I have no patience for that anymore. As I inferred earlier, the music becomes secondary when everything else is in tune and it’s those experiences I’m after.