An outburst of saxophone flurries sits you straight up in your chair. The tone is rich but with a cutting edge.
It has to be Rudresh Mahanthappa. The riveting cry of his alto saxophone is one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz.
But those darting runs coalesce into Charlie Parker’s “Red Cross.” So it can’t be Mahanthappa, can it? He has made 15 straight albums of original music. He doesn’t do covers, right?
On his 16th recording, Hero Trio, Mahanthappa breaks through to the past—his and ours. He proudly proclaims Parker’s bebop—but then “Red Cross” flies apart, into free showers of 16th notes. It is startling to hear Mahanthappa playing songs you know, even lilting ones like Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed” and time-honored standards like “I Can’t Get Started.” Of course, his versions do not stay lilting or standard for long. By the sixth track, you’re ready for anything—except “Ring of Fire.” Rudresh Mahanthappa doing a Johnny Cash song? There must be a story there.
The story begins in Colorado—specifically, Boulder. Mahan-thappa’s father is a noted theoretical physicist who came to the United States from India to get a Ph.D. at Harvard and stayed in the American academic world, settling at the University of Colorado. The school’s website says that K. T. Mahanthappa is “interested in grand unification theories, fermion mixing, and masses including charge fermions and neutrinos.” His son Rudresh shares a proclivity for the intellectually challenging and the arcane, but in 16th notes, not neutrinos. (There are two more sons in this high-achieving family, both with Ph.D.s in the sciences.)
Mahanthappa grew up in Boulder, listening to people like Stevie Wonder. He started on alto saxophone in the fourth grade. He matriculated at the University of North Texas in 1988, right after it changed its name from North Texas State. The school had a reputation for turning out notable jazz musicians. Billy Harper, Lyle Mays, Bob Belden, and David Weiss went there. So did Norah Jones, briefly. (So did Meat Loaf, briefly, though presumably not in the jazz program.) Snarky Puppy started there.
Mahanthappa was not happy at North Texas. He says, “For me, it was an uncreative place. There was kind of one way of doing things. And as a brown person in Texas, I never felt comfortable.” After two years, he transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, a school even better known for turning out notable jazz musicians. “I had always wanted to study with Joe Viola, who was one of the great American master teachers of the saxophone. Berklee was more the vibe I needed.”
When he took his degree in 1992, he did not, like so many Berklee graduates, relocate immediately to New York City. “I wanted to go to a big city that wasn’t New York, and Chicago was a place you could play a lot.” He entered a master’s program at DePaul University. By 1997, he was ready to make the move. “I always said I wanted to play with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette someday, and that was never going to happen if I stayed in Chicago. In the mid-’90s, you had to be in New York.”
Mahanthappa hit the jazz radar not long after arriving in town when he joined forces with pianist Vijay Iyer. They began gigging and making records, some led by Iyer (Blood Sutra on Pi Recordings; Panoptic Modes, reissued on Pi), some led by Mahanthappa (Mother Tongue, Pi), some co-led (Raw Materials, Savoy). Today, Mahanthappa and Iyer are two of the most respected, most decorated musicians in jazz.
They dominate the critics’ polls in the alto saxophone and piano categories, respectively, and most years appear at or near the top of categories like “musician of the year” and “album of the year.”
Back at the turn of the millennium, though, they were up-and-coming players who were unusual for two reasons: There were few Indian-American jazz musicians, and they played strange stuff. Iyer is an autodidact who has always had his own percussive, polyrhythmic piano language. As for Mahanthappa, when you listen to his early recordings now, he already sounds like no one else. He already has that sublime alto saxophone shriek. His art is already dizzying in its diversity, juxtaposing melodicism and dissonance, formal focus, and freedom. In his playing, you hear intimations of many moments in saxophone history, from primary sources (Coltrane, Coleman), to footnotes (Jimmy Lyons, Sonny Simmons). You also hear lyricism in beautiful new jagged shapes.
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The magnificent eight
The Story of the Grateful Dead, a 14-LP, 8-album collection of Grateful Dead recordings with booklet and deluxe packaging, from Vinyl Me, Please (VMP-A006, 2020), is intended as a curated sampling of the high points in the Dead’s extensive catalog. The first seven albums were cut from analog tape, while Without a Net comes from the original digital master. The sound is breathtaking.
T+A Solitaire P headphones and HA 200 DACheadphone amplifier
What I categorize as mainstream, dealer-based, fancy-pants stream-ers and big-speakers audio is actually only the gold-plated tip of a gigantic asteroid-like monolith that extends (underground) from New York to Hong Kong, from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. This immense audio-social mass is mostly invisible to the Madison Avenue mainstream, but simple Google searches expose millions of proletarian audio-gear constructers (DIY’ers) working in shops, basements, and garages, scratch-building everything from turntables to tonearms to phono cartridges, to capacitors and vacuum tubes, to amplifiers, headphones, ribbon and electrostatic speakers.
MAKE MORE NOISE!
The title of this set—4 CDs and a book—comes from British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst’s call to arms for women to fight for their rights: “You have to make more noise than anybody else,” said Pankhurst, who died in 1928.
EDITOR’S PICK - RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Landscape into music
It says something about the power of music that some individuals fading into dementia can still recognize the music they knew earlier in their lives. Not to denigrate new music, or music one hasn’t heard before, but our mental jukeboxes award top chart numbers to music that we have lived with over time. Those DJs making their playlists in our brain are the toughest of critics. They don’t care what anyone else might think, “Close to You” is staying in the rotation. Music and memory are linked.
Some great new reissues
For jazz fans, a new batch of releases in Blue Note’s Tone Poet series—vinyl reissues remastered with care and cut from the original analog tapes—is the reason for celebration.
PS Audio Stellar M1200
MONOBLOCK POWER AMPLIFIER
Marantz Model 30
KEF LS50 Meta LOUDSPEAKER
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IN SEASON Chickpeas (GARBANZO BEANS)
Chickpeas appear in early recordings in Turkey well over 5000 years ago. India produces the most chickpeas worldwide but they are grown in more than 50 countries. An excellent source of carbohydrates, protein, fiber, B vitamins, and some minerals, they are a nutritious staple of many diets. The name chickpea comes from the Latin word cancer, referring to the plant family of legumes, Fabaceae. It is also known by its popular Spanish-derived name, the garbanzo bean. Kidney beans, black beans, lima beans, and peanuts are other familiar foods found in this legume family.