Mahanthappa and Iyer
Jazz for a new America
From the February, 2011 issue
At the very essence of jazz there is a seismograph that responds to the changing social fabric of America. This was perhaps best encapsulated in the title of Sidney Finkelstein's book Jazz, A People's Music, published over sixty years ago. More recently, a new generation of musicians, born in the West of immigrant parents, have blended jazz with the arts of their cultural roots. The highlights of last year's Edgefest were Jason Hwang's jazz reinvention of aspects of Chinese musics, and Amir ElSaffar's tribute to his Iraqi origins. Now UMS brings together the groups of pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose roots lie in different parts of India.
Iyer and Mahanthappa, who grew up and were educated in different parts of this country, met in 1976 and began to play as a duo; and although both have participated in and led various other groups, they remain in many ways inseparable, getting together to tour in tandem to this day. Their musical development has been marked by a clear intent to avoid the obvious, as is apparent in their unusual attitude toward their own Indian roots. Both have managed to avoid the simple borrowing that often characterizes such fusions. Instead, over the years they have cautiously investigated the rhythmic and melodic foundations of the various musical traditions that have flourished in India.
Mahanthappa took his search further when he discovered the Carnatic playing of fellow alto saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath, one of the few native Indian musicians who play the instrument. After studying with the master, he brought him West for a tour that included the recording of the CD Kinsmen. Mahanthappa has absorbed the Indian pitch blends, quarter tones, and rhythmic elements into his playing, but in his hands they lose their original references and become part of a consistent personal style. Indeed, he plays in the same general manner whether in duet with Iver, as part of ElSaffar's Iraqi-flavored band, or--as at Hill Auditorium last
year--with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes. Ever searching for new experiences, he teamed up recently with an alto saxophonist from a very different generation, seventy-five-year-old Bunky Green. Green, who began as a bebopper, has not remained frozen in his music but has absorbed selected elements of more recent harmonic and textural developments. Both saxophonists share a commitment to hard, driving, complex yet extremely precise playing, even if they differ in personal sound and rhythmic approach. The group they formed has toured and recorded an acclaimed CD, Apex.
Iyer, whose fascinating recent trio, quartet, and solo recordings testify to his original, busy, harmonically dense but clear approach to improvisation, comes with his trio. The two groups share a double bill at Power Center on Saturday, February 12.
[Originally published in February, 2011.]
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