Rudresh Mahanthappa has become something of a go-to saxophonist in recent years. Born in Italy, going to school in New York, and studying Carnatic scales with Indian saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath helped Mahanthappa develop a specialized East-meets-West skill on his instrument. Somewhere along the line, an instructor also introduced him to the music of Bunky Green. Right away, Mahanthappa was drawn to Green’s music, convinced that the two of them had adopted a similar approach to playing jazz on alto sax. Mahanthappa struck up correspondence with Green over the years, but only recently did they get around to recording together. Apex can be seen as Rudresh Mahanthappa’s musical dream date, with Jason Moran, Jack DeJohnette, François Moutin, and Damion Reid riding along as chaperones. Of course, the idea of working with one of your heroes can lead to indulgence. Happily, Apex is not a victim of such a pitfall. This is one tightly wound album. The music, not the acrobatic virtuosity, does the talking.
Mahanthappa and Green produce distinctively different sounds when blowing their altos, but they play together quite well. Seriously, they are so synchronized in pitch and rhythm that you could easily forget about the age gap between the two (36 years, in case you were wondering). Their partnership is also a seamless fit when it comes to composition. Though a great deal of the material here was written by Mahanthappa and Green independently, the CD flows from start to finish. To the least discerning of ears these songs may sound like they came from the same mind, which could be true in an abstract manner of speaking, since they were composed with a duet album in mind. The whole thing is so locked into place that it might unintentionally pass for passive listening. Thus Apex commands closer attention.
A brilliantly executed example of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s telepathic connection to Bunky Green is the ascending figure that concludes the first two tracks, “Welcome” and “Summit”. The motif is repeated a few times, but doubles in time over numerous rhythmic variations. These two songs don’t so much resolve as end on a question mark, like a sentence ending with an upward inflection. Given how the exact same notes end both numbers, it’s like the listener is being asked two questions in a row at the onset of the album; the first one short and searching, the second long and challenging.
The roster of Pi records is full of confrontational artists that demand you throw out everything you know about a conventional jazz record. For instance, a number of these tracks begin with the sole sound of Moutin’s bass playing. And in the case of the amorphic blob that kicks off “Soft”, it virtuously does nothing to forecast the angular swing that follows. “Lamenting”, which sounds a great deal like its title, is spliced in half with Moran holding the reigns first. The saxophone makes its entrance with less than a minute to go, giving the listener the impression that someone just missed the bus.
But I’d be lying if I said that Apex didn’t have a foot planted close to post-bop’s roots. Green started earning paychecks working for Charles Mingus, a restlessly progressive mind struggling within the shadow of Ellington and his big bands. This struggle seeped into Green’s musicianship to the extent that “The Journey” underscores the cliché that life is more of a journey, etc., etc. Green and Mahanthappa duel in a rapid call-and-response manner inside a minor key, creating a sense of thrust to the tune that feels just a little bit troublesome.
It’s songs like “The Journey” and “Eastern Echoes” with tense melodies that betray the amiable and mutual respect that Rudresh Mahanthappa and Bunky Green share. But an impressive calling card for modern jazz is that such gushy feelings of admiration are never let on…at least not that easily. These kinds of meetings (or, as track 2 calls it, “Summit”) carry an undercurrent of masters still searching for the best tools to get the job done. And as long as jazz remains a self-inflicted battle to express one’s self, albums like Apex will continue to capture the joys of collaboration in the most unsettling ways possible.