World music, somewhere along the line, started to mean peacefulness and bubbling streams, trance-y atmospherics and eating in the mall at the Rainforest Café. A bum rap.
Instead, I prefer—wildly prefer—music like the glorious sounds on Kinsmen, a cross-pollination of jazz and Indian music, specifically South Indian Carnatic music. Rudresh Mahanthappa, an Indian-American born in Boulder, Colorado and trained at the Berklee College of Music, here collaborates with the Indian “Emperor of the Saxophone”, Kadri Gopalnath on a series of vibrant compositions that integrate two linked but utterly different traditions.
Gopalnath is an improviser like Mahanthappa, and they both play the alto saixophone. How different could their conceptions really be? Kinsmen makes clear that the territory here is wide. There is a vast difference between these players but also a vast overlap. The primary difference, at least in the ear of a jazz listener, is in the players’ approaches to rhythm. Mahanthappa, for all his downtown cred and modernism, is still fed by a flowing stream of bebop groove, with stuttering syncopations that trace back to Charlie Parker. Gopalnath uses stuttering syncopations too, but they are fastidious and clipped, the flickers familiar from Indian music. Hearing the two men play together, “kinship” is the word that comes to mind. But it is a kinship felt across a significant distance. How to make the connection, then?
Mahanthappa first heard about Gopalnath when his brother gave him the album Saxophone Indian Style as a kind of joke after a recital at Berklee. It opened up possibilities for Mahanthappa, who was eager to learn about the music of his ancestry. The two saxophonists met a few years later at a concert, and the current collaboration was born of a commission by the Asian Society. Mahanthappa traveled to Chennai (Madras) in 2005 to work with Gopalnath, composing melodies that would wed the Carnatic tradition with a jazz sensibility. The work premiered in May 2005 in New York, where Mahanthappa lives.
Essential to the fusion is not only ingenious composition by Mahanthappa, but also the right ensemble to bring the music to fruition. The two leaders assembled The Dakshina Ensemble from sources domestic and otherwise: A. Kanyakumari (violin), Rez Abassi (guitar), Poovalur Sriji (South Indian barrel drum), Carlo de Rosa (acoustic bass), and Royal Hartigan (drums). The group can groove like a jazz band and play with the metric precision of Indian music. But the arrangements do not suggest plain demarcations.
Therefore, on “Genesha”, the first solo goes to Gopalnath, but is backed mostly by a conventional jazz feeling over a complex time signature. When Mahanthappa begins to play, the melodic line becomes vastly more Coltrane-ish, but Hartigan cuts out, revealing the clarity of Indian hand percussion rather than just polyrhythm. Abassi’s guitar solo could almost have been played by Pat Metheny in terms of style, but Hartigan accompanies unconventionally (sounding like a tabla player), and then the drummer straightens out his groove beneath violinist Kanyakumari, whose solo style is distinctly Indian. The contrasts here are not collisions but kaleidoscopes. And the colors are vibrant.
The ballads are particularly remarkable. “Longing” is the kind singing melody that jazz listeners might associate with the great early Keith Jarrett albums, the kind of tune that slowly unfolds with voluptuous pleasure after a gorgeous guitar introduction. The first solo goes to Gopalnath over a changed rhythm feel that emphasizes syncopation in the bass tones without losing the sense of luxury. “Katyani” is introduced by a long solo from de Rosa, and it uses the Indian players’ expertise with bent quarter tones to great advantage, generating a melody impossible in straight jazz. Yet American music is essential to this tune as well, providing a grooving 4/4 propulsion and a healthy dose of blues feeling as Abassi’s solo moves from Shankar to Hendrix and back again.
Kadri Gopalnath cannot be considered secondary to Kinsmen, though the tunes and larger conception may be Mahanthappa’s. Gopalnath is not new to jazz. He regularly plays at international jazz festivals, and played alongside John Handy at the 1980 Bombay Jazz Festival. 1999 found him recording with jazz flautist James Newton on Southern Brothers. His work is not any kind of faux jazz, however, but a genuine adaptation of the saxophone tradition—its manipulation of the possibilities of reed and brass—to the rigors of Indian classical music, which happen to include improvisation. Every time Gopalnath plays on Kinsmen, you are reminded how narrow the jazz clichés can be and how much jazz musicians have to learn, even on their own turf, from other cultures.
Mahanthappa is plainly up the job of absorbing this influence and making his music stronger and larger because of it. The disc’s highlight is “Convergence”, a long, winding melody that hits an intercultural sweet spot. After Gopalnath and Abassi play two nice solos, Mahanthappa is set loose against just the percussionists, Coltrane/Elvin style. He skitters and scrambles and seems to summarize the pairing of saxophone styles in one statement. Later, the two leaders trade fours over cut time in an exhilarating conversation that blenders-up Carnatic music, Charlie Parker, Anthony Braxton, and friendship. Brilliant, brilliant.
Rudresh Mahanthappa has been nothing short of adroit in the last few years. He has put a little of the Blue Note-style funk back into the knotty downtown stylings that folks like Steve Coleman have made, frankly, very difficult to enjoy. But this collaboration seems better still: organic, exciting, muscular, and new all at once. Mahanthappa’s expressive powers on alto saxophone are widened by his encounter with an equally flexible partner who challenges jazz assumptions even while he blends into the tradition. And Rudresh Mahanthappa has found in South Indian music both his past and his future, an ancestral urge to play beyond what is expected and to make the music sing as freely as possible.
Kinsmen sings with incredible power.