Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak

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There is an invisible connection between the two principal dialects of Indian music—Hindustani and Carnatic—and the dialect of jazz. All three are really old and if you count that the origins of jazz go back to the blues and even further to the oral sung traditions of the African diaspora, then the etymological beginnings of blues and jazz is rooted in a tradition as ancient as the Indian ones.

But there is something else: and that is the connection that arises out of the spiritualism of both traditions—the worship of the Divine. John Coltrane made that connection towards the end of his life; so did his wife Alice Coltrane. Moreover, in terms of musicality, there is the elasticity of a myriad of melodic inventions; the harmonic colours and textures and most important of all, the vast musical topography of polyrhythms. Mr. Coltrane, together with his drummers Elvin Jones and, later Rashied Ali led a vanguard group of some of the most influential musicians of modern times, naturally spreading the word that begat much of the music of John McLaughlin and Shakti among others. But there was also another route to this wondrous artistic collision and that comes from the great sitar player, Ravi Shankar; the tabla players Ustad Alla Rakha and his famous son, Zakir Hussain. The violinist brothers L. Shankar and L Subramaniam are also among the foremost Indian musicians among Mr. Hussain’s generation. It is from this unusual reverse osmosis and via that avenue, which the glorious music of alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has sprung.

Mr. Mahanthappa is a quiet personality, but a gregarious saxophonist. His voice is melodious, yet boasts an improbable melding of bronzed woodiness. He seems to have sprung from the musical vortex that produced Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Ornette Colman and Eric Dolphy; but unlike the latter two he sounds mellower. Mr. Mahanthappa leaps like a mad gazelle. His musical breath is piping hot. He phrases are played in short arcs and gentle parabolas; hence the comparison with Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. However, Mr. Mahanthappa is a singular voice. His is cry from a restless spirit, driven be the yen to search for a language all its own; neither jazz nor Hindustani or Carnatic. He plays from the prompts of his guts, as much from the voluminous lungs that shout in staccato or legato lines that wallop the air like thunder. On Gamak Mr. Mahanthappa reveals his magnificent antecedents. “Gamaka” is a term that refers to the ornamentation in Indian classical music. It is the tonal innovation that gives character to Indian ragas and is essential to Indian music more harmonically than ornamentally. However, the term “Gamaka” literally means “ornamented note” and is produced by varying the pitch of a note by using forced oscillations between adjacent and distant notes of the essential melody. Mr. Mahanthappa uses all of the three principal “Gamakas”: “Jaaru” (or “Ulasita”)—equivalent to a slide in Western music; “Gamaka”—a deflection in the Western system—and “Janta”—a fingered stress used to augment notes in a scale, up or down in the Western system. It is important to know this as it actually increases a deeper appreciation of What Mr. Mahanthappa and his outstanding guitarist David Fiuczynski and bassist François Moutin do in the performances of some of the most complex charts written in programmatic notation.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the ingenious leadership of the alto saxophonist, who charges out from the blocks roaring like some sort of medieval beast, roaring, squawking and hooting with glorious melodies that twist and turn in shapes that mimic as much the elementally energetic dancing Nataraja as they do the restless improvisations of Mr. Mahanthappa’s own jazz persona. Some of this might run contrary to the stoicism of Indian philosophy, which is rooted in yoga and meditation. Thus “Waiting is Forbidden” is more a matter of New York existential angst than a characteristic asana under the pipal tree. But it is brilliantly executed as the sluice gates of saxophone and guitar are forced open by the virtuosity of the respective musicians. Yet “Abhogi,” a seven part raga that is composed and played in the pentatonic scale is more reticent. Its beautiful translucence is guided by the myriad glissandos that slip and slide as saxophone and guitar dance and intertwine with each other like lovers lost in the trance of both physical and spiritual realities. This is the only overtly “Indian” chart on the date although Rudresh Mahanthappa and the other musicians bring the great Indian tradition alive throughout the set.

Two short pieces are among the most riveting on the record. These are “Copernicus” and “Majesty of the Blues”. These charts remind the listener that this is, after all music that is played in the language and dialect of jazz. Mr. Mahanthappa is soaring and absolutely brilliant on both charts. It is a matter of curiosity that the magnificent percussionist, Dan Weiss—who is a master of the Indian tabla—plays almost completely on the Western drum set. His timing and adherence to the pulse and mimicking of the polyrhythms of Indian music are perfect throughout. Still it would have been pure joy to hear Mr. Weiss on tabla even for part of the set. It also bears mention that bassist François Moutin is a rare discovery. The melodic richness of Mr. Moutin’s playing on “Abhogi” and on “Stay I” as well as elsewhere on this exquisite record are just as monumental as the guitar playing of David Fiuczynski. But it is the genius of Rudresh Mahanthappa that is the most captivating aspect of this desert-island classic.

Tracks: Waiting Is Forbidden; Abhogi; Stay I; We’ll Make More; Are There Clouds In India?; Lots Of Interest; F; Copernicus; Wrathful Wisdom; Ballad For Troubled Times; Ballad For Troubled Times.

Personnel: Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski: electric guitar; François Moutin: acoustic bass; Dan Weiss: drums.

Rudresh Mahanthappa on the Web: http://rudreshm.com/

Label: Act Music & Vision

Release date: January 2013

Reviewed by: Raul da Gama