The contested territory between jazz that exists strictly “inside” the tradition and jazz that chooses to go “outside” the usual swing rhythms and consonant harmonies is an exciting landscape. Straight-ahead jazz is a beautiful thing, but it hasn’t changed much in 50 years. And totally free “out jazz” is exhilarating to experience, but how many albums of utterly freeform playing are you likely to go back to over the years?
That’s why the most insistently creative jazz musicians of today find ways to structure their music in new ways, combining exciting freedom with the discipline and artistry of new forms. Among the rising generation of such players, alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa must now be counted as a leader. His latest effort Codebook is innovatively structured and a pleasure to listen to—a grand example of how new structures fit under the jazz umbrella.
Codebook features compositions generated through an understanding of various codemaking procedures. Therefore, the CD package comes with a cool “code wheel” and plenty of interesting references to the contemporary approach to information overload. One tune, “Play It Again Sam” (dedicated to Samuel Morse, of the famous dot-and-dash code) supposedly allows the musicians to play rhythmic patterns that spell their names in Morse Code. But as a listener, you don’t need to know any of this. Rather, you need only open your ears and hear plainly how Mahanthappa’s tunes sound fresh and distinct without being unstructured. However they were made, these tunes open new vistas.
This is possible, in large part, because Mahanthappa is working with a quartet of incredible prowess. The drummer, Dan Weiss, is new to the group, and he lends a lighter, more open touch than previous drummers in this band. Bassist Francois Moutin is agile and specific, playing composed lines as well as typically swung patterns. But Mahanthappa’s crucial partner in crime is pianist Vijay Iyer. Iyer and Mahanthappa have been playing together in each other’s groups (and their first album of duets, Raw Materials, came out just this year), and their communication is about perfect. Iyer is an ideal modern pianist—the equal, say, of Jason Moran and Brad Mehldau—in that he is able to play harmonically complex material without fencing the band into restrictive corners.
Codebook thrives on the contrast in tone and style between the leader and his pianist. Mahanthappa’s alto is slightly sharp and nasal, with an acrid immediacy and bracing, pointed attack. On a tune like “Frontburner”, Mahanthappa makes a case for his virtuosity, jabbing his horn in a boxing match with Weiss’s drums, stuttering and poking at the harmonies, pungent and steely in his sound. When Iyer enters on piano, he is more likely to play with a quick-fingered transparency, opening up spaces in the music while still playing the kind of clusters and rolls that we associate with Cecil Taylor and Don Pullen. When playing together, Mahanthappa and Iyer are symbiotic enough to set each other up, trade roles, glide subtly out of each other’s way.
For listeners who haven’t heard either the leader or Vijay Iyer before, the crucial comparison is to alto player and MBase bandleader Steve Coleman. Both Mahanthappa and Iyer played with Coleman and obviously absorbed his a facility with devilish time patterns and precise flurries of notes that are harmonically obtuse but are not in the honking-and-squealing free jazz mode. On a tune like “Wait It Through”, Coleman’s influence is manifest, with a crazy time signature still lending itself to a funky groove under a jibber-jabber complicated head. The difference, however, is in the soul and human warmth that Mahanthappa always brings to his music. Steve Coleman, in fact, creates interesting music that is usually too cool or too mechanical for my ear. Mahanthappa, by contrast, bends his hard determination to a human form. And so a song like “My Sweetest” is perfectly lovely and tender, with Iyer rolling waves of harmony beneath like a refracted McCoy Tyner and the leader rolling out aching phrases that Steve Coleman would never craft.
Codebook is the kind of record that jazz needs right now. It’s fresh and original but not gimmicky—not any kind of “fusion”, yet still plenty funky in spots. There is freedom but also the kind of precision virtuosity that takes your breath away. With a dash of politics (the opening track is jokingly titled “The Decider” in tribute to President W) and a streak of romance, you can’t pin this disc down. It’s a jumping bean of a recording—always moving and surprising you.
If jazz is, indeed, “the sound of surprise”, then Codebook deserves a place of honor in the music.