It is becoming exhausting to keep up with the flowering career of Rudresh Mahanthappa, an American alto saxophonist. As a proponent of a new kind of jazz innovation, Mahanthappa has partnered with Vijay Iyer to lead several groups playing intricate and brilliant music that goes well beyond traditional post-bop jazz — but does so within a new, careful framework. As a musician of Indian heritage, he has worked with the Carnatic saxophone legend Kadri Gopalanth in the Dakshina Ensemble, combining US jazz and Indian classical music. He has toured with a Danish-American jazz quintet, he plays in a regular duo and several collective groups, and he has been a Guggenheim fellow. I’m panting just from typing out all of Mahanthappa’s credits.
The lastest from Mahanthappa is a dynamic trio called the “Indo-Pak Coalition”. Featuring Rez Abassi (from the Dakshiina Ensemble) on guitar/sitar and Dan Weiss on tablas, the group merges modern jazz with Indian music in a different way than Dakshina. As a trio, this group is less about texture and more about the individual players and the interaction of their individual lines. As a result, each choice made by the players from moment to moment subtly alters the balance being struck by the music.
On “Vandanaa Trayee”, for example, Abassi plays an acoustic guitar in an open style somewhat reminiscent of Pat Metheny. This choice — in concert with the beautiful, open melody composed by Mahanthappa — gives this tune a sound that would be at home on any number of recent Americana albums by Metheny or Bill Frisell. Weiss’s hand drumming is not lost here, but it comes off more as a bubbling brook than as idiomatically “Indian” playing. But even here, individual note or rhythm choices by Abassi or Mahanthappa in their solos can suddenly remind the listener that there is another culture informing this music.
“Palika Market” takes a different approach. Weiss takes the lead from the start, pronouncing a complex rhythm that is matched by electric guitar playing a circular line, allowing the tablas to launch into a logical and wondrous improvisation. The alto enters with a new melody that joins the guitar line in short spots, complicating the weave of the melodies. Here, the western instruments are more subservient to the rhythm from overseas, even as the arrangement allows each to surface occasionally as the featured sound. Once the real solos begin, it’s a spirited competition, as the tablas still compete on equal ground with Mahanthappa or Abassi as they try to wrest control of the proceedings from the percussion.
“IIT” and “Apti” are equally exciting performances. Mahanthappa’s compositions wed the precision and intricacy of Indian music with the harmonic form and structure of jazz. The written themes pop and dance like they were melodies from old Blue Note albums — with stops and starts and plenty of excitement — but often using the signature phrasing of Indian music in the process. When Mahanthappa solos on “Apti”, he sounds like Jackie McLean as as often as he does like Gopalnath. Both he and Abassi are likely to reharmonize on the fly, playing Coltrane-like chord stacks, but they have also mastered the stuttering phrasing that adds syncopation to Indian music. With Weiss underpinning both elements, these tunes are always in the pocket.
The ballads here bring a different kind of enjoyment. “Baladhi” is drenched in a blues sensibility, with the alto saxophone carving out thick slabs of feeling, but Abassi’s electric guitar also establishes a complex chordal movement. On his solo, the guitarist uses a distorted tone and phrases in a way that brings to mind John McLaughlin, whose (mainly acoustic) experiments with Indian music helped to define his electric Mahavishnu Orchestra. You hardly expect the ballad feature to hint at old-school “fusion”.
The most outrageous burner on Apti is the last track, “You Talk Too Much”, where Mahanthappa sounds like he is running changes on a bebop tune, fingers flying over the keys with the joy of Charlie Parker. Abassi comps in staccato joy, then starts leap-frogging the chords himself. The point, I suppose, is that the Indo-Pak coalition is ready and able to pull from every area of jazz, finding it a simple matter to draw from whatever bag gives the music a good ride.
And it’s that kind of eclecticism that marks Rudresh Mahanthappa’s music. While his heritage has drawn him to explore the rich resources of Indian music, the recorded evidence is that you can’t hem him in. If his early playing with Vijay Iyer first suggested a structured free-bop approach, then recent recordings point — happily — in many directions at once.
And that, of course, is what makes jazz still such a vital art form. With musicians technically capable of playing just about anything, it’s a happy outcome that they make such intelligent and focused music.