Rudresh Mahanthappa: Song of the Jasmine has been a wild ride

Colorado-raised, New York-based composer and jazz alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa has fused bop and avant-garde jazz with everything from punk rock and drum 'n' bass to classical South Indian stuff over a 20-year career.

Premiering May 15-18 at Walker Art Center, Song of the Jasmine is his new collaboration with Twin Cities-based Ragamala Dance choreographers Aparna and Ranee Ramaswamy. After a recent rehearsal with Ragamala, Gimme Noise and Mahanthappa discussed the Jasmine project and his career.

Drawing on the artists' South Indian heritage, Jasmine explores conflicting notions of identity, the traditional and contemporary, spirituality and sensuality. Five Ragamala dancers will adapt the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam to Mahanthappa's hybrid of jazz and Carnatic (South Indian) music, including improvised passages by both musicians and dancers. The band assembled for Jasmine includes longtime Mahanthappa associate Rez Abbasi on guitar, Carnatic flautist Raman Kalyan, and sisters Rajna and Anjna Swaminathan on mridangam and violin, respectively.

Gimme Noise: How is Song of the Jasmine coming together?
Rudresh Mahanthappa: We've been getting together to work on sections of the piece every six to eight weeks since December. It's a stretch for everyone involved because the Bharatanatyam tradition doesn't really deal with improvisation, but some of the sections of what I've written are improvised and structurally more akin to a jazz tradition. The music doesn't sound that way, but structurally it kind of functions that way. So there are parts of the show that will be different every performance. We're trying to figure out some language together where we can communicate with each other and still create something cohesive. It's been a wild ride; it's really cool. Dancers hear music differently. They don't deal with music like musicians do, regardless of the fact that this tradition is obviously so tied to music and tied to rhythm. It's been really different so it's fun to try to get inside of that too.

So the dancers improvising too?
Yeah, they're improvising just like jazz musicians. They're improvising within their vocabulary and their language. But yeah, those sections of some of the movements, they will be different from night to night. The dancers are reacting to the soloists and the soloists are reacting to the dancers. There are certain cue points so we know how to get in and out of these sections. But it's very different from, you know, the music is set and the dance is set and it just goes. It's a whole interactive process between all ten of us.

The dancers are part of the band and the band is part of the dance troupe?
Absolutely. Definitely.

On a project like this, what comes first, the dance, the music, or what?
Even if it's vague, a framework for what the whole piece is... There is a story line of loss and longing, kind of typical scenes that occur within both Indian classical music and dance, but in a modern way. I knew very quickly I wouldn't be able to show up with a band like Gamak [Mahanthappa's current genre-blurring ensemble], with acoustic bass and screaming electric guitar and drums -- that wasn't really gonna work. Even just thinking about instrumentation, like something that kind of meets in the middle, between South India music and jazz, for lack of a better word, which is something I've been doing on my own for quite a while.

And then since it is Indian music essentially, or it's coming from that base, it's easier to think about ragas and for me to build around that... I didn't go totally out, but I can do that... Now the piece is four or five movements with some interlude sections to bridge things. There is one movement that's without dance because it's a really great band and I wanted people really get to hear us too. Not that they don't get to hear us within the dance, but it's nice for us to just be able to let it rip for eight minutes.

I've heard this piece deals with identity and multiculturalism and global issues.
Even when you read the ancient poetry of India there is an issue of identity and rediscovery. There are denominations of Hinduism that pay no regard to the caste system and you have generations of people that were really able to reinvent themselves. And then of course Aparna and I, we're Indian-Americans and we're part of probably the first major generation of Indian-Americans that are out there in the arts. We're not doctors, we're not engineers, we're actually trying to create a new hybrid language within what we do to describe what it means to be bi-cultural. At its very core, the piece represents that in a way, so we're both stretching and collaborating to exemplify ways to do that.

You've done that in almost all the music you've done.
I see it all as kind of a journey; different ways of looking at the same thing, I guess. As I grow as a composer I'm more interested in other things and it all becomes part of a larger conversation. I think that way back when, say like '95 when I'm in my mid-20s, trying to actually define what it means to myself to be Indian-American was actually an issue. Now I don't think twice about it. I think the confusion actually becomes a benefit and becomes something that gives me a unique perspective on how I observe the world around me and how that translates with making music.

Is that something you had to work through in a personal sense and in an artistic sense?
In a personal sense it's a larger issue, just to have that kind of cultural angst. But musically, in some ways in working through that the music is maybe a by-product of growing up and becoming an adult. But specifically with regard to music, the main issues to me were to not sell either side of the cultural equation short. There are a lot of bad Indo-fusion projects out there; a lot of bad East-meets-West collaborations that are just terrible. It's people coming together and playing in the same room; they're not playing together, they're playing next to each other. They're not really collaborating, they're not necessarily interested in learning about the cultural background of the other collaborators. They're more interested in showing up and doing what they do. Or it's exoticism, or it's trying to dress something up to look as if it's not Western.

That's a danger with any kind of hybrid thing. As an artist, as a composer how do you do that without diluting, compromising one or the other?
It's important to be as educated as possible, obviously, in this case about Western music and about Indian music, and just continue that process of learning for the rest of my life. But also to look at the basic building blocks. If you take any art form and break it down to its building blocks, break it down to its roots, you're in a much better position to actually build something that incorporates both, that is actually creating new language that has a lot of integrity and sincerity. It's when you take the superficial exotic -- "Oh, I took this Indian melody and I put some chords under it and I put some swing feel to it, now I'm hybridizing jazz and Indian music" -- that's the dangerous stuff that I see. I see it happening less though, just because there's greater access to information because of the internet now. But I still see it and it still freaks me out.
Some of that stuff can be well-intentioned too.
It can be. It can be incredibly well-intentioned. But that in a sense makes it even more dangerous because it may be coming from a well-intentioned place but it could potentially be insulting as well. So that's a tough one.

This [Jasmine project] has been interesting for me because the instrumentation really leans much more to the Carnatic side of things than the jazz side of things; just sonically trying to figure out how to make this music sound in a very solid way, especially just range-wise. There's no bass player, there's no drum set; not that I need a drum set, but there's no bass player. A lot of my music is very bass-oriented; the bass lines are what kind of propel the thing. And then range wise, saxophone, flute and violin, I mean, we're all kind of in the same range. So trying to make sure that texturally it's not mid-range heavy is a challenge too. I'm kind of making all these people do things they're not accustomed to doing, which has been a very interesting process. And the great thing is everyone involved is totally game for it. None of them are looking to just, again, show up and do what they do.

Saxophone is kind of alien in South Indian music?
Yeah, it is. There's one guy [Kadri Gopalnath], who kind of pioneered it. And of course, he has students. It's funny, cause that could potentially backfire on you. But for him, he's a bit more of a celebrity than other South Indian musicians in India because it's such a unique thing and people are really into it. His approach to playing the saxophone is totally different. It's a bit homemade. It's not like the guy took Western saxophone lessons and figured out to do his Carnatic thing on it. He just came at it as if it were a South Indian instrument. That's really interesting from a technical, saxophone nerd point of view, like, that's how you're putting your mouth on the mouthpiece, wow, that's kinda weird. But it sounds frickin' amazing.

So playing with him, did that help you figure out how to apply saxophone to some of the Indian stuff that're you're doing?
It's primarily a vocal music, and there's all this beautiful ornamentation and this way you get from one note to the other that just doesn't translate to the saxophone very well. My brother actually managed to find one of [Kadri Gopalnath's] CDs at Tower Records. I was able to sit and try to play along with that album, the same way I was playing along with Charlie Parker and Coltrane records. It was such an eye-opener to hear that music on my instrument.

Trying to transcribe Indian vocal stuff on the saxophone is really difficult; just the approach to sound, the approach to ornamentation, the way of -- for lack of a better term -- sliding between notes. A classical Indian musician might sing one note but they're actually like four notes that happen very quickly in there... Part of what I did was just sit with [Gopalnath] and say, OK I wanna work on this so play this. And he'd play it and I'd be like, '"Ok, can you play that slower? I actually want to see what you're doing with your fingers." Even though his saxophone is really bizarre. He has some parts of it kind of jimmied in certain ways that make what he does easier. He's kind of re-engineered his horn in very subtle ways. But making him play something slow and then watching it and recording it and trying to emulate it--that was all very helpful and a lot of that stuff ended up going into the album that came out before Gamak, which was called Samdhi.

Especially early in your career, people had expectations about how you would sound because of your heritage.
I grew up in Boulder, I listened to like '80s rock on the radio... When I actually started writing music and playing gigs, later on into my 20s, there was an expectation there would be something overtly Indian, even if I was playing with piano, bass and drums and we were playing like Miles Davis tunes. Ya know, you kinda have to look beyond my name and my skin color. I'm very concerned with the synthesis of ideas and creating something that is kind of neither and both. And some people still come with an expectation. I think it's more on the Indian side, maybe the older generation, they're expecting to hear a really strong reference to something that's quintessentially Indian. It's just not there, and it's not a priority to me.

At the same time, on Gamak, for example, you're synthesizing other things: rock 'n' roll and bop and electronics and all this other stuff.
Some presenters put me on a double bill with another Indian artist, when really we should probably be opening for Chick Corea. These things happen less and less, but they still happen. Or they'll be a program for a jazz festival and all the publicity material says that I'm from India, maybe trying to exploit the exoticism.

I am Indian-American and I'm always quick to say that. But if someone's asking where I'm from, I say I'm from Boulder. I don't know if you know this series of books John Zorn has edited where he asks different musicians to submit an essay. It can be an essay on anything. He asked me to contribute something to the sixth volume. And mine was a bit more of a humor piece. It was like all the things that have been said to me after a gig and how I've reacted and then re-evaluated my reaction. But one of the funny ones is, "How often do you go back?' And I say, 'Go back? You mean go back to Boulder? I try to get back to Boulder as much as I can."

Give us an update on the other projects you've got going.
So Gamak is touring through the rest of the year, and Indo-Pak Coalition does stuff as it arises. This dance piece is going to be touring for the '14-'15 season. My next project, we've done a few workshops but it's officially premiering at the Newport Jazz Festival in August, and that's a Charlie Parker project. We're not playing any Charlie Parker tunes, but each tune is either based on a Charlie Parker tune or a Charlie Parker solo. It's taking elements that occur in these tunes or solos and writing new music based on that.

That's actually a quintet.The drummer's named Rudy Royston. Rudy plays with Bill Frisell and Dave Douglas a lot. François Moutin is the bass player. He's been my bass player on various projects for 17 years. Matt Mitchell is the piano player. Matt plays in that Dave Douglas band along with Rudy and he also does a lot of stuff with Tim Berne's current project, Snakeoil. So I wanted to have the Charlie Parker Quintet, you know, Bird and Diz, so I have a trumpet player also and his name is Adam O'Farrill, he's 19 or 20. He's just scary, scary good. He's the newest generation of the O'Farrill family. Chico O'Farrill is a seminal Afro-Cuban jazz pianist, and Arturo is his son, who also plays piano, and Adam is Arturo's son.

I've always done a lot of things and every album has kind of been different. But I am definitely trying to streamline and try to have only a couple of things happening at once.

Song of the Jasmine will be performed Thursday-Saturday, May 15-17, 8 p.m., in the McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center. Info.

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