Innerviews, music without borders

Rudresh Mahanthappa
Transmission and Perception
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2019 Anil Prasad.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

More than ever, jazz is a global genre. Saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s output is emblematic of an evolution that’s blown far past dogmatic, purist worldviews on what’s possible within it. His most recent album Agrima, released by his trio Indo-Pak Coalition, reflects a drive to expand vocabulary, unleash new ideas and enable a free flow of communication between band members and audience.

Indo-Pak Coalition, also featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi and percussionist Dan Weiss, has existed since 2008, when its debut recording Apti emerged. Initially, the group overtly explored the nexus between jazz and Indian classical music. But by the time it made 2017’s Agrima, Mahanthappa chose to infuse rock influences into the mix and use Indian themes as springboards for more wide-ranging compositions. With Mahanthappa now firmly cemented as one of the jazz world’s most restlessly creative artists, he simply felt there was nothing left to prove. To its benefit, Agrima’s music is propelled by instinct rather than conceptual intrigue.

Mahanthappa applied a similar viewpoint to his previous album Bird Calls from 2015. The effort focused on his interest in the work of Charlie Parker, which immediately created loaded expectations for many prior to hearing it. Mahanthappa betrayed the clichés by delivering a recording of entirely original, modern music inspired by Parker, without attempting to imitate the legend.

The saxophonist’s dedication to exploring unique terrain also manifested itself in his participation in Mudang Rock, a new collaborative release with drummer and Korean music expert Simon Barker, guitarist Henry Kaiser, and bassist Bill Laswell. The album combines Korean traditions with avant-jazz, Indian, rock, and dub influences.

In addition to his recording and performing career, Mahanthappa serves as the Director of Jazz at Princeton University. He brings a sense of freedom, flexibility and expertise to his role that’s rare in jazz education. The same borderless vision that informs his music also translates into his teaching.

Innerviews spoke to Mahanthappa about his current activities, as well his refreshing, unvarnished take on the economic complexities of releasing music in the current era.

Rudresh Mahanthappa Indo-Pak Coalition

How do you feel Indo-Pak Coalition evolved from Apti to Agrima?

We did a lot of gigs in between those records, during which there were some landmark moments for the band. We played a gig at the Verona Jazz Festival in which the circumstances weren’t ideal. We went into the show with a disadvantage. Our flight was delayed out of JFK for nine hours. We stayed up all night waiting for the flight to take off. We were exhausted and weren’t in prime mode. We also had sound problems at the gig. It’s a perpetual problem for us to not be able to hear the tabla. People don’t understand tabla makes very little sound. When you’re playing with louder instruments like saxophone and electric guitar, you almost have to push it to the point of feedback. So, that wasn’t our best show. But Dan Weiss asked me after it how I felt about incorporating some pieces of a traditional Western drum kit into his set up. I said that would be fine as long as tabla was somehow central and didn’t become secondary. He said he would seamlessly incorporate it.

The next gig we had coming up was at the Montreal Jazz Festival. We just kind of winged it. Dan said “Let’s get there an hour early and let me piece some stuff together.” It made a world of difference in terms of what the band could do. It gave us more dynamic range. One of Dan’s issues in addition to not being able to hear himself was that he didn’t feel like he could keep up with the energy playing only tabla. So, he developed a setup with a snare, bass drum, a cymbal, and tabla, in which he’s constantly switching around. It gave us a lot more to work with. On Agrima, there are a couple of tracks on which he only plays drums and I’m totally fine with that. It’s still coming from the same musical space. Dan’s a guy who is a master North Indian percussionist, but he can also play like Max Roach. Rez Abbasi has also got into a lot of electronics. I started working with electronics on Samdhi as well. I backed away from it for a couple of albums, but a saxophonist and music synthesist named Neil Leonard wrote a piece for the two of us and our laptops. He wrote these great patches in Max/MSP and showed me how to use them. They have a wide range of possibilities. It’s a lot more than stomping on a pedal. These are very dynamic patches that can do a lot of things and have great versatility. He said I can’t share the patches and that they have to stay on my computer, but I’m able to do whatever I want, including recording and playing gigs using them. So, I’ve been working with those and it has been like learning a whole new instrument. It’s given the band a whole range of sound and dynamics we didn’t have before.

One of the hardest things about this band is it’s very trebly between the range of alto saxophone, guitar and tabla. It’s very difficult to give it a sense of bass and groove—those sounds that touch us very viscerally and are the core of our rhythmic soul. So, trying to figure out how to convey that with this instrumentation isn’t easy, but with these new tools and changes, I think we’ve been able to fill out the sound a bit.

Describe how your creative process has shifted in recent years and how the band contributes to realizing your pieces.

I think there’s a certain clarity that has emerged in the way I write and play. I think clarity isn’t simplicity. You can have clarity on something that’s very complex and sophisticated. I think the motion of melody and ornamentation has become very natural to me across the last 10 years. It’s not forced. It has evolved. I think you really hear it on Bird Calls, Agrima and Gamak. In the past, I’ve written some music that’s both really hard to play and maybe hard to listen to. I’ve been embracing sparser, more impactful melodies and not worrying about the structural complexity.

Apti was a long time ago. I was probably in a place where I was trying to deliberately work with concepts from Indian classical music. I was trying to evoke the sound of a Hindustani trio. To some degree, there was a certain purism I was chasing. There was also an element of me having to prove something to myself or others and show that I knew something about this ancient music. As the years have gone by playing with these guys, there are a lot of things about Indian music that have become part of my musical DNA. As I’ve matured as a person, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anyone anymore.

As far as the band’s input, it has a shared knowledge that manifests itself in different ways. I’m the one calling the shots, but I welcome their feedback and opinions. We’ve been playing so long that there’s a natural kind of progression and efficiency involved when I bring in a new piece. We’re able to make music quickly after that. We’ve also all checked out a lot of similar artists in both the jazz and Indian music worlds, but we perceive music differently to our mutual benefit.

Indo-Pak Coalition has confounded expectations on several levels, particularly for those who aren’t familiar with the group in advance of seeing it perform.

I enjoy the irony of the fact that the white guy is playing tabla and the brown guys are playing Western instruments. Indo-Pak hadn’t done an album in such a long time. I wanted this album to get past the “He’s doing that Indian thing” perception that enables the music to kind of get ignored. This new album has so much rock and electronics on it. It’s a different sound. However, I feel some people have put us into that box again. That’s been a little disappointing, but as far as average listeners, whether they know my work or not, I think they’re in a different place now. We’ve had another 10 years of multiculturalism in America and a greater variety of music available to them from all over the world on their phones and devices.

You contributed to Abbasi’s latest recording Unfiltered Universe. What are your thoughts on that album?

Rez is writing some really great music and I love his tunes that are like miniature suites that go through different territories. His pieces both highlight and challenge each player in the band. Rez’s compositions are very thoughtful. I compose very quickly and it’s rare I take multiple days to write a tune. I get the feeling Rez really takes his time to let things develop. He’s always writing for the next two projects and has a long perspective.

Rez has a detailed vision. He’s also a good foil for me when it comes to my own work. He has a particular sense of pacing that I think is really good for Indo-Pak. He can shred when he wants, but also do lots of varied things on his instrument. He’s all about what’s appropriate for the music. He wants to add to the music as opposed to what sounds cool. He’s someone who really steps back and thinks about what he wants to do.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Your previous album, Bird Calls, used Charlie Parker’s work as a compositional springboard for new, original material. What drove you to pursue that idea?

I came up with it a long time ago in the mid-‘90s when I was working on “Donna Lee” with a student. We were working on it in little segments. We weren’t always starting at the beginning of a phrase. We were taking stuff out of context, and out of context, it sounded as modern as anything. It sounded like something Stravinsky or Bartók could have written. Some of the rhythmic stuff and emphasis of accents sounded really funky, like a really good hip-hop beat. So, it struck me at that moment that we have to talk about Parker as a contemporary figure, not as someone historical or a museum piece.

From that point, it was in the back of my mind to further investigate that. I had the opportunity to really do it because a promoter named Willard Jenkins was doing his series at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. That year, he wanted to have three alto players somehow exploring Parker and whatever that meant to them. I’m sure some of the other guys played Bird tunes, but that wasn’t a requirement. I told him I was thinking about writing music literally inspired by things Bird played or wrote, and he was down with that. For the first gig, I wrote three things and mixed in some of my originals. Then I had a week at The Stone and did three nights with the Bird Calls project and three nights with Indo-Pak.

I kind of got side-tracked after that, but I wrote a few new things for Bird Calls. I was going to write a ton of new things for Indo-Pak too, but I got too busy and I wasn’t able to get both things done. Dan got booked for the rest of 2014, so recording with Indo-Pak during that period didn’t make sense. But the Bird Calls band was so good with Rudy Roystone, François Moutin and Matt Mitchell. It was amazing. Steve Lehman, a very good friend of mine, came out and said he was totally blown away by it. He said “That’s your next record.” So, that progressed into writing more music and looking for a trumpet player. I really wanted to sonically evoke the sound of Parker’s front line, which always involved a trumpet player like Miles, Dizzy, Fats Navarro, or Herb Pomeroy. I asked around, including a couple of famous trumpet players, but they were either unresponsive or not interested. Then I ran into Steve Bernstein who said he knew Adam O’Farrill and that I had to check him out. I went on YouTube and stumbled on an audition video he made where he was playing a Bird tune like “Now’s the Time” or “Billie’s Bounce.” The first couple of choruses were very straight-ahead but by the third chorus, he gets into some other shit and I thought “What the fuck? This is the guy.” I emailed him and said this is what I’m thinking about. He was super stoked.

Compositionally, the music on Bird Calls probably sounds like a lot of my other music. It’s not like it’s a grand departure. But because of the Parker orientation, people put a different set of ears on when they listen to it. Maybe people listened to it who otherwise would avoid my music. The music got played on radio stations my other records never do. The whole thing kind of makes me laugh in a way. I do think the album is great. Everybody played so well and live, the band is awesome.

Parker died at age 34. Was there an element of contemplating what Parker might have done had he lived longer?

I’ve always been contemplating that. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve always wondered what he would have done in the ‘70s. Would he have been into electronics like Eddie Harris? Would he have played EWI? Would he write stuff like Steve Coleman today? Obviously, I didn’t know the guy, but I would like to think he would have always been on the cutting edge. He wouldn’t have rested on his laurels or on a particular genre, even though he helped create the genre. He would have continued to explore. That was the nature of his way.

The album isn’t called Bird Calls because it’s about a bird singing. It means “Bird calls upon us to be the best musicians we can be in whatever we choose to do.” I think very few people understood that meaning.

You took part in an impromptu session with Simon Barker, Henry Kaiser and Bill Laswell that yielded the Mudang Rock album. Reflect on that experience.

That was one of those things where I just showed up and played. Henry has a unique approach and way of working. He’s obviously checked out a lot of music from all over the world. He sent me a list of ideas, ragas and rhythms to consider in advance of the session. The way Simon works with Korean drums and rhythmic cycles is fucking ridiculous. I had heard of him previously and was familiar with some Korean drumming, but what he was getting out of his instruments was amazing. I thought “Fuck, we gotta play! Let’s do some stuff.” [laughs] Henry was making all kinds of sounds on his guitar. Bill had really big ears. Any place I went, he was right there with me and that was really cool. It was also great to work at Bill’s studio. It’s an awesome place and it’s really close to my house. I have an open invitation to use his space and record, so I may take him up on that in the future. Soo Yeon Lyuh, the haegeum player, overdubbed her parts on those sessions. She’s well-known in world music circles and respected.

Provide some insight into your role as Director of Jazz at Princeton University and what it means to you.

My goal isn’t oriented towards turning out professional jazz musicians. Ninety-eight percent of my students study something else, but jazz is a big part of their life and they want to keep playing. Hopefully, they’ll keep playing when they leave Princeton as well. But they’re not trying to become professional musicians, for the most part. That doesn’t mean they’re not good. A lot of them could have focused exclusively on music, but they wanted a broader education. So, that’s really cool.

Some people might think that means a lower level of playing, but it doesn’t. The performing ensembles at Princeton are all extracurricular. They’re all overachieving kids who do everything 110 percent. So, the dedication is nothing to question. And because it’s not a conservatory, we have a lot of latitude and freedom to explore and enjoy this music without thinking about “How is this going to help me get the gig?”

We commissioned a piece from Billy Childs. He came out and worked with us for a week. We were able to get Darcy James Argue to run the student big band, which was a coup. Here’s a guy who straddles a lot of different musical worlds, but is definitely steeped in jazz history. We had Archie Schepp come out and play the “Attica Blues” suite, together with Amina Claudine Myers, the student big band, a small student gospel choir, and a string quartet. It was a massive production that I could never see the hardcore jazz schools doing. It was very impactful beyond the music for people to really understand where this music comes from and how jazz is a music of social action and community organizing.

I’m always asking myself about how this can go beyond being able to play “Giant Steps” in all keys. Is that really important? What I think is important is how can I actually influence how this music is transmitted and perceived. Can I shape future audiences? I think me being an active practitioner of the music and an educator is really important, too. As we’re all aware, jazz education has become an industry. There are a lot of people teaching jazz that didn’t really get out there and play. They’ve never lived in New York. There are lots of things they’ve never done, but somehow they’re teaching this music and that’s problematic.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

How do you balance the weight of jazz history and encouraging students to explore new directions in the program?

I try to do both at once. There is a tendency towards repertoire in jazz education. You’ll hear people say “Let’s do a concert of all Basie.” I think that’s cool in theory, as long as you’re doing other things to complement that. That balance is something that’s always been really important to me. At our concerts, you might hear people playing Bird, something really contemporary, and their own original tunes. I want these to all occur in the same concert, in the same context, so we see how tradition informs the present. I want to emphasize that this is a living art form and not a museum piece. Darcy James Argue feels the same way. At his first concert with the large ensemble, they played Mary Lou Williams and John Hollenbeck during the same program and it didn’t sound disparate. It all sounded related. My approach reflects the way I’ve always conducted my artistic life—one foot in the past and one foot in the future.

Elaborate on the fact that so many people coming through the program aren’t necessarily seeking to make a career out of music. What does that say about the current music industry reality?  

I’m more than okay with that. I don’t want to be responsible for sending these people out into the world trying to make a living playing this music, especially at this point. So many venues have closed. So many festivals have folded. There’s virtually no viable recording industry left. I would rather they study something else and keep playing. I don’t know what the students that come out of other schools that aren’t studying something else are going to do when they graduate.

Let’s discuss how you chose to release Agrima, which bucks the system musicians have been encouraged to pursue by streaming and tech companies.

It came out of an odd space. I was in between labels. I was leaving one label with the expectation of recording for another. The other label never materialized. It wasn’t coming through at the pace I needed it to in order for it to work. Bird Calls came out in early 2015 and there I was in 2017, not knowing when my next album was going to come out. So, I decided to self-release it. I had a grant and some research money from Princeton I was able to put towards it. I probably spent more of my own money on it than I wanted to, but I was able to make it happen and experiment with how I put it out.

The vinyl edition is limited. I thought charging $40 for a double LP was a middle-of-the-road price point. We only made 700. Once those are gone, we’re not going to make any more. Then we have the cheap download. That idea was multi-tiered. The question was “Are people going to spend less than they do on a cup of coffee every day to buy a whole album of music?” I would like to think they would. I have a mailing list of 7,000 people and hope at least 4,000 will buy the album for $2.50. The other question was “If I sell this album so cheap, are people really going to put it up on file-sharing sites? Will they bootleg it or will they just tell their friends to buy it?” To date, I haven’t seen it on any file-sharing sites. Not a single one. I’m also selling socks and shot glasses. [laughs] So, we have some varied offers.

Tell me about your decision to not put Agrima on any streaming services.

It’s only $2.50, so just go buy it. If someone hears my album on streaming, what does that lead to? A royalty check for five cents? I don’t want to expand my audience to people who don’t want to pay for my music. Yeah, more people are going to hear it, but that doesn’t send the right message about the value of music and the value of artists having a decent livelihood. The Internet delivers multiple ways for us to devalue each other, because we’re not doing these things face to face. You want to support what I do? Again, go buy the album. This isn’t rocket science. You’re not going to find it on Amazon either. The only retailer involved is HDtracks, which sells the 24-bit, high-resolution version.

We live in insane socio-political times. In previous eras, jazz musicians were a major force in combating race- and class-based narratives. Is there a role for jazz musicians to play in that regard today?

There should be, but it’s a tough one. There are some younger musicians that are very community-oriented and trying to tie that to their music. But there are a whole lot of musicians that are just trying to survive. Thinking about a big picture is something they don’t have the mental space to deal with. Trying to figure out how to pay the rent and put food on the table supersedes the idea of trying to make the world a better place. Things are harder than they’ve ever been for jazz musicians. As we discussed, the infrastructure has crumbled. There are tons more good musicians out there too because of the schools. So, we have tons more musicians and far fewer gigs.

Something else that’s true is this music is still incredibly segregated. I still see a lot of white guys playing with white guys and black guys playing with black guys. I don’t think that marker has moved much since the ‘60s. I know people would like to think it has, but I don’t think so—not in any great way. So, how does this music have a voice in combating racism when the community itself is so segregated? I don’t have any answers.

I thought it was really great to have Archie Schepp at Princeton. Here’s a guy whose music was tied to activism for decades. It still is. He’s incredibly eloquent and an amazing person to be around. I think people like him can inspire change, and he’s 81 years-old. I think figures like him can continue to have a great impact and provide good role models work from.

What do you see as the value of music connecting people in this divisive period?

I think music has an inherent selflessness to it. It can ultimately unite people in ways other things can’t, because people have a common interest in particular music and artists. It can serve as a foundation for a point of relation to expand upon and see each other for who we are. I think music can elevate how we perceive humanity. The big problem right now is that things have become so tribal. We’ve lost the sense of a larger picture and perspective. I think music has a unique way of reminding us of that. It has a particular innocence that encourages a more generous frame of thought.